How Great Was Alexander?

Following his observations on Napoleon, sociologist Randall Collins has posted another insightful article on one of history’s greatest warlords: What Made Alexander Great? Once again, I recommend you take an hour or two to read the whole thing. Below follows a summary with noteworthy excerpts.

Philip’s Groundwork

Alexander’s father Philip laid the groundwork to his son’s success. His importance can hardly be overestimated.

Philip’s Macedonian army, which he put together between 360 and 336 BC, incorporated all the most advanced improvements. Most importantly, he added heavy cavalry, operating on both flanks with the phalanx in the center. Philip’s cavalry were not just for chasing-down after the enemy broke ranks, but for breaking the enemy formation itself. Philip was one of the first to perfect a combined-arms battle tactic: the phalanx would engage and stymie the enemy’s massed formation, whereupon the cavalry would break it open on the flanks or rear.

Reserves and flanking maneuvers had been famously introduced by Epaminondas of Thebes where Philip had been hostage as a youth. Philip expanded on these tactics, and also adopted the most advanced Greek siege techniques of his time. Finally, his soldiers carried most of their own equipment and supplies, greatly increasing marching speed over other armies with their bulky wagon trains. Note how Alexander built on not one but two famous predecessors, one constrained by his relatively minor theater of operations, the other conveniently assassinated at just the right time – time for a decisive campaign against a crumbling empire before the new tactics had become commonplace.

The late-blooming Macedonia stepped on the scene as the squabbling Greek city-states had become permanently deadlocked and the vast Persian empire had reached the administrative limits of its expansion. Persia had failed to project sufficient force into Greece against strong naval resistance in the early 5th century BC, and the Greek wars for hegemony in the 4th century had ended in stalemate. On this stage Macedonia could grow by swallowing the barbarian inland areas to the north which the established powers ignored.

Philip, who grew up as a hostage in one of the civilized city-states, had an eye for what counted there; after returning to Macedon, he made a point of conquering barbarian land that had gold mines, as well as seaports as far as the straits, where the grain trade passed upon which Athens and the other Greek city-states depended. In short, he started by becoming the big frog in a small pond, while learning the military and cultural techniques of his more civilized neighbours, and combining them with the advantages he could see on the periphery. At a point reached around 340 BC, the city-states woke up to find that their biggest threat was not Persia, nor one of their own civilized powers, but a semi-barbarian upstart, whose armies and resources were now bigger and better than their own.

Alexander’s Success

Both Philip and Alexander expanded largely by diplomacy, reinforced by the occasional victorious battle and razed city. For Alexander diplomacy was also essential since a long-distance army expedition could survive only if locals were recruited in advance to provide supplies along the way. The creation of empires out of many small diplomatic alliances is a recurring theme in antiquity. Coming out of the semi-barbarian uplands of Iran, Cyrus built the Persian empire in much the same way as Philip built Macedonia’s, leaving minor potentates in power in return for supplies and tributes. (The Roman empire also relied heavily on alliances with lesser neighbors, as detailed by Edward N. Luttwak.)

By the time Alexander gained the throne, an invasion of Persia had long been mooted in Greece – not because Persia was still a threat but, on the contrary, because the Mediterranean was already filled with Greek colonies and the rising powers of Rome and Carthage in the west. In comparison, Persia provided the easiest target to dispose of surplus youths and idle mercenaries. For Alexander’s complete success, it was also essential that Persia was already sufficiently civilized to support a conqueror and his armies.

Sheer military force cannot take over a territory before it has developed to an economic level at which the conquering forces can be sustained. At the cusp of civilization, large armies couldn’t even traverse such places if economic organization isn’t complex enough. Conversely, a state with a strong enough infrastructure to support its military rulers also can support a conquering army. No Greek general, like Alexander or anyone else, could have conquered an empire spreading into the Iranian plateau and beyond into Central Asia, in the 500s BC when those places were still isolated agricultural oases amidst tribes and pastoralists. It required the intermediate step such as Cyrus took, to build the logistics networks. A person-centered way of saying this would be: no Cyrus, no Alexander.

Alexander knew how to use enemy logistics in his favor, too. At Issus he won against a Persian army that was already disintegrating and out of supply, forced to move away from Darius’s chosen battleground near the Syrian Gates because Alexander had simply left them standing there for weeks. Once battles were joined, Alexander turned the Persians’ greater numbers against them by crushing one weak spot where he could employ local superiority, thus causing panic to spread through the densely packed crowds. Persian strategy preferred huge numbers over disciplined organization in an attempt to overawe enemies before a battle. Against an enemy who refused to be overawed, that was a recipe for failure.

Alexander’s Demise

Collins ends with observations on Alexander’s personal character, his famous antics and eventual clashes with his fellow Macedonians. Many of these episodes are most entertainingly put on display in Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic Alexander (just make sure to get the “Final Cut” which actually makes sense).

Now Alexander is in a structural bind. As Persian King, and in constant diplomacy playing King of Kings to the chieftains around him, he is caught in the ceremonial that exalts him. As leader of the world’s best military, he needs to keep up the solidarity of his Companions. The ambiguity of that name – more apparent to us than it would have been at the time – displays the two dimensions that were gradually coming apart: his companion buddies, a fraternity of fellow-carousers, fighters who have each other’s back; and the purely formal designation, members of the elite with privileged access to the King.

Binge drinking eventually killed him, it seems. With the amount of alcohol routinely downed for fellowship’s sake, no disease or poisoning would have been necessary.

The triumphant return to the center of the Empire was one carousing celebration after another. There was a drinking contest with a prize; the winner drank 12 quarts of wine and died in three days; another 40 guests died because they were too drunk to cover themselves in a sudden storm of cold weather. At another great feast, featuring 3000 entertainers imported from Greece, Alexander’s closest friend Hephaestion fell ill after swallowing an entire flagon. […] Someone stepped forward, one of the original Macedonian Companions, inviting him on an all-night drinking binge. They did it again the next night. Alexander woke up with a fever, steadily worsened, and died. It was alcohol poisoning, of course – literally drinking himself to death, like his companions.

Lasting Impact

Since Alexander’s empire quickly broke apart after his death, his lasting impact was the spread of Greek cultural and commercial connections eastward. As it turned out, this first eased Rome’s eastern expansion once it had become involved in Greek affairs, and later provided the birthplace of Christianity.

The inadvertent consequence of Alexander’s conquest was to create the conditions for the linguistically unified networks that became the great universalistic religion of the West. The panhellenic Greek spokesmen who in the 300s BC advocated colonizing land won from the Persian Empire thought they were exporting Greek democracy. This did not happen. What got created, instead, was a cosmopolitan network structure, with Greek as its lingua franca. In it the very idea of universalism – of a religion free from worldly entanglements and local loyalties – could take hold.

Finally, Collins discusses the obligatory grognard question, “Alexander versus Napoleon: Who would win?” The answer is sadly inconclusive…

On an ancient battlefield, Napoleon would have been too small to play much part. On a modern battlefield, Alexander would have been one of the wild barbarians whose cavalry charge got mowed down by Napoleon’s artillery. Maybe he was, in the form of one of the native armies Napoleon annihilated in Egypt or Syria. Alexander won all his battles, Napoleon lost at least one big one. But Alexander fought perhaps a third as many battles, all of them one-sided, the most advanced military organization of its day against inferior ones. Napoleon fought armies much like his own, and towards the latter part of his career, his enemies caught up with his best techniques. It is foolish to attribute their respective records to such transcendental impossibility as sheer decontextualized talent. […]

They lived on opposite sides of a moral divide. Alexander was far more personally cruel than Napoleon, or other modern people, could be. Getting into Alexander’s world makes us realize how different are human beings under different social circumstances. Today someone like Alexander would be on death row. Napoleon one could have liked.

2014-03-29: Randall Collins has followed up on Alexander’s life with Really Bad Family Values, a juicy analysis of the routine murderous infighting among members of noble families.

2016-02-23: David Grant offers a fascinating contrary reading of Alexander’s life: he stood on the shoulders of not just Philip but also his close advisers, Antipater and Parmenio. These two actually engineered his victories and kept his empire together – until Alexander had Parmenio murdered out of envy, at which point his empire promptly crumbled.

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