ALEXANDER THE GREAT: WHO’S YOUR DADDY?
Everyone has to have someone to look up to for inspiration. Julius Caesar had Alexander The Great. Alexander had probably mythical (but that didn’t matter to the Ancient Greeks) Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War.
Alexander was born in 356 BCE to Philip, the king of Macedonia, a bit of a backwater in the collection of impressive city-states we know today as Greece. Until Philip came along, Macedonia had been a bit of a joke, getting sand kicked in its face by the larger, richer city-states of the day – Athens, Sparta, Thebes and even foreign invaders such as Persia. Philip changed all of that. Sent to Thebes, then the greatest city in Greece, as a VIP hostage (sons of lesser foreign kings were often taken as glorified hostages to make sure the lesser king kept his vow of loyalty, but they were raised in the royal court of their captors and general treated very well) as a young man, he studied under their greatest generals and learned the arts of war. When he finally ascended to the throne of Macedonia, he invested heavily in improving their military capability. He then used his new army to conquer other relatively weak city-states and take their natural resources, which, in turn, helped him further invest in building his military capability. And so on and so forth.
His biggest contribution to warfare was the introduction of his phalanx infantry corps wielding ridiculously long spears (some might even suggest he was compensating for something, like men who buy sports cars and throw a personalised number plate on them) known as the sarissa. The sarissa was about 4–6 metres (13–20 ft) in length and weighed approximately 5.5 kg (12 lb) to 6.5 kg (14 lb). They were made of wood, with a sharp iron head shaped like a leaf on the pointy end, and a bronze butt-spike on the other end, which could be jammed into the ground to stabilise the spear in the event of an enemy charge. To begin to imagine what fighting a Macedonian phalanx was like, imagine having a regular sword and trying to fight someone holding a broomstick 2-3 times the length of a very tall person with a sharp pointy bit on the end.
Now imagine fighting 256 men each holding a sarissa, in a densely packed formation of 16 files with 16 men in each file, who had been drilled over and over to be able to swing quickly and accurately in unison, front, back, left, right. The sarissa was so long that, when deployed, there were five rows of pointy bits protruding from the phalanx in front of the first row of men. So even if your horse managed, somehow, to avoid the first row of pointy bits, there was no freaking way it was going to get anywhere close to the troops.
Philip used this new phalanx to conquer or demand submission (just by giving them a hard stare with his one remaining eye, having lost the other to an arrow during a battle) of most of the Greek city-states, unifying them into a league with himself as the top dog, with the intention of taking a massive, unified Greek force to conquer Persia, as payback for a succession of earlier Persian invasions of Greece.
Unfortunately, before he could fulfil that ambition, he was assassinated at the age of 46, supposedly by a jilted homosexual lover, possibly planned by one of his many wives, Olympias, and his son to Olympias – Alexander. There’s no real evidence to confirm that ancient suspicion, but it’s quite possible, as both Olympias and Alexander had tension with Philip due to his taking of a new Macedonian wife (his seventh) who, it was said, would bear him a true heir to the Macedonian throne. Olympias, on the other hand, was from Epirus, so Alexander, of course, was only half-Macedonian.
After his demise, the fragile league of Greek city-states he had put together rebelled. It was up to his 20 year old son and heir, Alexander, to pull them back into line. Fortunately, he had two things going for him – his father’s impressive military machine, and his strategic brilliance as a military commander.
Alexander wasn’t wet behind the ears when he took over his father’s empire, either. At age 18 he had fought alongside his father at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE, in command of the left wing, accompanied by a group of Philip’s experienced generals, where he had exterminated the infamous Sacred Band of the Thebans, the elite force of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers. The theory of banding together homosexual lovers was that they would fight to the death to protect their mate. And it worked pretty well – until they faced Philip and Alexander and their phalanx of guys holding massive phallic spears.
He had also been tutored by the most famous philosopher-scientist of his day – the great Aristotle, student of Plato. From Aristotle, Alexander developed a taste for exploration and enquiry that would eventually lead him to explore and conquer two-thirds of the world known to the Greeks of his time.
What made Alexander such a memorable general is that he managed to combine brilliant strategic insight with a willingness to throw himself into the fray. I’ve often wondered what was going through his mind when he put his life on the line, over and over again. My guess is that he saw those situations as a win-win. If he won the battle, often taking on armies many times bigger than his own, and in strange lands with unusual weapons like battle elephants, he knew he would go down in history. If he died in the process, he would also go down in history as fearless warrior, like his personal hero, Achilles, who died during the siege of Troy. Alexander reportedly always kept his personal copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow at night – beside a long dagger.
It’s also possible that Alexander believed Philip wasn’t his real father – he was instead sired by a god. There’s a great story in Plutarch that, on the night of Philip’s marriage to Olympias, he found her in bed having some kind of sexual intercourse – with a snake. She was, according to Plutarch, part of a snake-worshiping cult of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and was having sexy times with the god Jupiter Ammon, aka Zeus, took the form of the snake to knock Olympias up and father a child who was half-god. This may sound ridiculous to modern ears – and yet there are around two billion Christians on the planet who believe Jesus’s mother, Mary, was impregnated by a god, so Alexander’s story should be given at least as much credence. He, at least, conquered two-thirds of the known world in his lifetime, which attests to his godly abilities. What did Jesus accomplish in his lifetime? To get arrested and executed? Coincidentally, they both are said to have died around the same age.
I have a few favourite stories about Alexander. The first one that comes to mind is the Siege of Malli, which took place at the end of 326 BCE at the location of the city of Multan in modern Pakistan. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years.
Getting frustrated at how slowly the siege of the Malliian citadel was proceeding, Alexander, completely ignoring the enemy archers, threw a ladder up agains the wall of the citadel and quickly climbed over it, disappearing from the view of his troops, who were all still on the outside. He was quickly followed only by three of his men, including Peaucestas, who always carried the “Shield of Achilles” (supposedly the actual shield from Troy) for Alexander. We can only imagine how excited the Maliians must have been to have such a stupid enemy! The mighty king Alexander, feared across the world, had thrown himself over the wall, practically alone, making himself an easy target for their arrows!
One of the men who went with him, Abreas, was immediately killed by an arrow to the head. Alexander was also shot by a three-foot long arrow – it somehow entered his chest and protruded out of his fucking neck! He fell to his knees and the Mallian who had shot him ran up to deliver the final blow – but Alexander thrust his sword into the man’s chest, killing him, and then pulled himself upright by holding on to a branch and defied the rest of the Maliians to come and fight him. I like to think of him standing there like Bruce Lee – silent, hand stretched out, just wiggling his fingers at them with the “come here” signal.
Peaucestas wasn’t having any of that shit, and quickly threw the Shield of Achilles over him and turned to face the enemy, ready to protect his general and king for as long as possible.
Of course, Alexander’s men on the outside of the wall were nearly hysterical when their king had done what they had not been brave (or foolish) enough to do, and then quickly followed. Certainly, many died in the process, although I suspect most of the Mallian arches had turned their focus on trying to cut the head off the snake (little did they know who his true father was!).
They catapulted over the wall and saw Alexander lying in a pool of his own blood with a big bloody arrow sticking out of his neck – and they went completely batshit crazy. They slaughtered everyone in the citadel – old men, women and children. It was a complete bloodbath, a mass slaughter.
Now let’s ignore the brutality of that for a moment and think about Alexander. Why would he put his life on the line that that? Was it an act of bravery or stupidity?
Maybe both. Or maybe it was that thing I talked about earlier. Maybe he didn’t care what happened to him in battle, as long as it was glorious. This was a very Macedonian mindset. Alexander wanted to live up to the standard of Achilles (who died by an arrow shot by Paris). He wanted epic poems to be written about him and memorised by Macedonian children for centuries to come. That, perhaps, is what success looked like for Alexander. It wasn’t about money or power. It was about glory. Achieving as much of it as possible during your lifetime – and by glory I mean taking on incredible challenges, rushing headfirst into battle, laughing in the face of your enemies and danger – and dying in the middle of trying to achieve it. Living a glorious life and dying a glorious death.
As it turned out, his death was anything but glorious. He died a few years after the Mallian siege, either from some kind of rapid disease like malaria or from being poisoned by his enemies. We don’t really know. Taking a big fucking arrow through his chest couldn’t have helped, either.
The other story about Alexander that comes to mind is one of his most epic battles – Gaugamela. This took place in 331 BCE close to the modern city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan against the “king of kings” of the Persian empire – Darius III. The Persians had the largest and richest empire the world had ever seen and the army to go with it. They had previous invaded Greece a number of times, and now Alexander brought the fight to them. Many thought it was an act of suicide. Having the sarissa was one thing – having to face the full might of the Persian army was another. For a start, they had fucking WAR ELEPHANTS. This was the first time most Greeks had ever seen an elephant, let alone a war elephant. It must have been like facing an enemy who turned up with a battalion of mecha-Godzillas with frikkin’ lasers on their frikkin’ heads.
Not only did they have war elephants, the Persians also had more men – way more men. Alexander brought about 47,000 troops into battle. According to the ancient sources, Darius had somewhere between 250,000 and one million. Modern estimates are more in the range of 90,000 – 120,000, but that’s still a huge advantage. And the Persians had the home ground advantage. They knew the terrain and were more used to the climate. Oh and did I mention they had fucking war elephants?!?
Okay, they only had fifteen war elephants, but still, that’s like fifteen mecha-Godzillas. They also had two hundred chariots with razor-sharp scythes on the wheels, chassis and yoke poles. The idea being you would ram your chariot through the enemy’s infantry, chopping off the legs of anyone who got too close.
Darius, by the way, tried to prevent the battle from even happening. He had already been defeated by Alexander a couple of years earlier at the earlier Battle of Issus, and knew what he was facing. So this time he chose a battlefield that had the two mighty rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris, running between it and the direction that Alexander was approaching from. He sent a force of 5000 men to the first river that had to be crossed, the Euphrates, hoping to prevent Alexander from crossing or, if some of his men did manage to successfully cross while being attack from the opposing bank, weed out his numbers even further. Crossing a deep, wide and torrential river isn’t easy at the best of times and even less so for an ancient army with horses, shields, swords, 8 meter long spears, baggage and who have just marched across a desert to get there, so they have no boats or rafts, except those they can build on the spot, and who are exhausted – from weeks of marching across fucking desert.
Unfortunately for Darius, the roughly 5,000 men he sent to stop Alexander were too smart and they scattered as soon as he approached.
Eventually the two armies lines up on opposite sides of the battlefield, preparing to meet on the following day. On the morning of the battle, Alexander’s soldiers were alarmed that he wasn’t up before dawn, summoning them to his tent to review the day’s battle plans, as he usually did. There had been no sound at all from the king’s tent. Was he dead? Murdered in his sleep? Poisoned? Taken early by the gods? Snake bite? Scorpion?
None of these things – he was fine – in fact, he was dandy. When he was finally roused from his fitful sleep, and informed that Darius’ troops, all one million of them, were already in battle formation, while Alexander’s were still in their pyjamas, he laughed and told his generals that it was all going to be okay. Relax, guys! I’ve got this!
He told them he’d been up late the night before, stressing out over the following day’s battle plan, when, finally, it came to him in a brilliant flash – and then he fell straight to sleep, a deep, deep sleep. Now he was up and confident that his plan was going to work.
“What’s the plan?” they asked?
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “You’ll see soon enough.”
Now imagine you’re Darius for a second. You are the king of kings of the mighty Persian empire. This puny young rascal, whose empire is five minutes old, and consists of puny Greeks, but has already somehow, incredibly, defeated your troops once, is now having a nice, old sleep in, while you’ve got your one million troops lined up in neat battle formation – on the first day of October, in Iraq. It’s Autumnal weather, probably getting up around 31-38 degrees Celsius (89 – 100 degrees F) in the middle of the day, so it’s pretty warm. And your men are just standing there, waiting, waiting – for the guy who is sleeping in. Should you attack while your opponent isn’t ready? Or is this some kind of cunning ruse, a trap to lure you in? Surely this Alexander must have something up his sleeve? So you stay in position – and your men are getting hot and restless and tired from standing in formation. No to mention your freaking war elephants.
Eventually Alexander’s puny army of 47,000 appears on the field of Gaugamela. But his formation is all wrong. Instead of putting them in a straight line, Alexander’s forces are in a diamond pattern. In those days, generals would typically put their infantry in the middle of the line, and their cavalry on the wings. Alexander has followed that basic plan, but his cavalry are angled away from the Persian line, like the top of a diamond. Highly unusual. Alexander himself was in the centre, with his sarissa phalanx and his own cavalry division made up of his best and brightest, the Companion Cavalry.
Finally, the battle commences, and the two lines run towards each other. The battle takes places in a flat piece of desert, so there’s dust rising up from the feet of hundreds of thousands of men, horses, chariots and fucking war elephants, making it nearly impossible to see more than a few metres in front of your face.
Suddenly Darius sees Alexander and his right wing, dash to the right away from the battle field! It’s over! The young punk has chickened out! Ahura Mazda, the chief god of the Zarathustran religion, had prevailed and brought his people victory at last over these barbarian Greeks!
Which is exactly what Alexander wanted him to think.
When Darius gave the order to his own left flank to pursue Alexander and make sure he is captured and killed, it opens up a gap in Darius’ line, which Alexander’s phalanx drives open even further with their 8 metre long spears. And as soon as that gap is wide enough, Alexander turns his cavalry sharply ninety degrees and plunges through the gap, straight at Darius. Behind him, his archers hold down Darius’ left wing and prevent them from rushing back in to fill the gap.
Meanwhile, thinking Alexander had abandoned the field, Darius had launched the main body of his forces against Alexander’s left wing, believing his scythed chariots would cut them to pieces. But Alexander had a plan for that, as well. Just before the chariots crashed into Alexander’s infantry line, they parted, like the Red Sea before Moses, creating a gap that allowed the chariots to pass right through. Then, once the chariots had passed through them, the infantry swarmed around them, firing arrows at the backs of the drivers, and they were cut down. Of course this manoeuvre didn’t work in every instance, and, according to the ancient author Diodorus Siculus, the results were horrifying: Such was the keenness and the force of the scythes ingeniously contrived to do harm that they severed the arms of many, shields and all, and in no small number of cases they cut through necks and sent heads tumbling to the ground with the eyes still open and the expression of the countenance unchanged, and in other cases they sliced through ribs with mortal gashes and inflicted a quick death.
Darius, realising almost too late that Alexander was not running away but instead was coming directly towards him, hurriedly ordered his cavalry to block Alexander’s path. When Alexander couldn’t reach Darius to personally kill him with his sword, he is said to have thrown a spear which barely missed Darius, and instead killed the charioteer beside him. Some of the Persians, unable to see clearly thanks to the dust and commotion, thought the king had actually been killed and they panicked, fleeing the field. Others followed in their footsteps and gradually Darius’ guard evaporated. Alexander meanwhile tried to force his way through to the king, using his sarissa phalanx and cavalry to bludgeon what remained of the king’s defences. The king, realising that all was lost, turned and scarpered away from the battle. Alexander chased after him for a while, but eventually turned back to make sure the battle was concluded successfully.
According to one first century author, Curtius, the Persians lost 40,000 men to the Macedonian’s 100 – 1200. Another ancient author, Appian, claims 300,000 Persians were killed. Regardless of the accuracy of those estimates, the result was the same. The Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great over 200 years earlier, was now effectively over. Alexander now ruled Greece and the Persian Empire, which included modern Egypt, Libya, Turkey, and all of the Middle East.
Darius III was captured by one of his own governors, executed, and left in the middle of the road to distract Alexander from pursuit. Alexander took the corpse back to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, for an honourable funeral.
So what can we learn from Alexander?
Fortune Favours The Bold
Alexander may have inherited a terrific military machine from Philip, but a lot of his success, especially after he left Greece, had more to do with his bold strategies than the strength of his phalanx alone. His strategy at Gaugalema is my favourite example of that. Facing overwhelmingly larger forces, he did what nobody expected him to do. He thought outside of the box and came up with a plan so crazy it worked. He applied his brains to the situation, rather than rely solely on brawn, or, in this case, the size of his army. All of us find ourselves in situations where we are facing massive odds and it’s tempting to take the path of least resistance, just lie down in front of the steam roller and let it flatten you like a pancake. But maybe we can all try to find a little bit of Alexander in us, and come up with a plan, think our way out of disaster by being bold. Sure – it might not work. But I don’t think Alexander really cared if it worked or not. In his mind, he was either going to live or die like a hero. Of course, statistically speaking, there are probably more people who try bold things, fail, and we never hear about them. We only hear about the ones where the boldness pays off. As Napoleon, someone who admired Alexander and Caesar, said: “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” Speaking of Napoleon…