Thursday, February 6, 2014


A previous post considered Napoleon as CEO.  It focused on how he led organizations and structures in transition, and how networks intersected for a moment in time to pump up a central individual with huge emotional energy. It takes apart the genius/ talent/ ability cliché and shows what makes such careers happen. Alexander the Great is a good comparison: a chief contender to Napoleon, with an even better record of military victories, and similar historical fame. So: what made Alexander great?

Here is a preliminary checklist:
[1] His father’s army and geopolitical position
[2] Tiger Woods training
[3] The target for takeover
[4] Greek population explosion and mercenaries
[5] Alexander’s victory formula

We will also consider:
Was Alexander’s success because of or despite his personality?
Did Alexander really achieve anything?
Why did Alexander sleep well, but Napoleon never slept?

[1] His Father

That is to say, his father’s army and favorable geopolitical position. Alexander is famous for having conquered the Persian Empire. It was the greatest empire in the world at that time, covering 3000 miles from west to east, 1500 miles north/south. The expedition was planned and prepared by his father, Philip II of Macedon, and was ready to go when Philip was assassinated at the farewell party. The 20-year-old son took command, waited two more years to make sure the Macedonians and the Greeks were behind him, and then carried out the epic campaign of conquest in 10 years.

Instead of kicking the causal can down the road, we need to ask: how did Philip come to build this invincible army? The answer is in the organization and the opposition.

The Macedonian army was an organizational improvement on the Greek hoplite army. The Greeks had developed the practice of fighting in solid ranks, forming a combat block of shields, armor, and spears. The whole aim of battle was to keep one’s troops together in a rectangular mass; with their heavy armor, they could not be hurt by arrows, stones or javelins-- a Roman version was called a Tortoise because it was impervious to anything.

The Greek phalanx, developed in the 600s and 500s BC, was a huge shift from the traditional mode of fighting depicted in the Iliad (around 750 BC). The traditional form could be called the hero/ berserker style.  An army consisted of noisy crowds of soldiers clustered behind their leaders, who didn’t really give orders but led by example. Heroes like Achilles, Hector, and Ajax would work themselves into a frenzy, roaring out onto the battlefield between the armies, sometimes fighting a hero from the other side, but more often going on a rampage through the lesser troops, cowing them into a losing posture and mowing them down with sheer momentum, i.e. emotional domination. This berserker style remained the way “barbarian” armies fought-- that is to say, armies that did not have disciplined phalanxes. The hero-berserker could never beat a Greek or Roman phalanx that stood its ground; the Greeks were always victorious over the barbarians to the north and east of them, and so were the Romans over their respective hinterlands.

On the other hand, when one Greek phalanx met another, the result was a shoving match. Unless one side broke ranks and ran away, few soldiers were killed. Most battles were stalemates, and city-states could avoid combat if they wished, sheltering behind their walls. The main purpose of cities all over the ancient Middle East, many of them just fortified towns, were these defensive walls, impervious to berserkers. Phalanxes only fought by arrangement, when both sides assembled on chosen ground for a set-piece battle.    

Greek hoplite battle

The main weakness of the hoplite phalanx was that it was slow-moving. Hoplites were heavy troops, quite literally from the weight of armor they carried. An enemy that hit and ran away could harass a Greek phalanx but would be beaten if it stayed to fight head-to-head. This was brought home to the Greeks when Xenophon returned from a campaign in Persia during 401-399 BC, writing up their experiences in his famous Expedition of the Ten Thousand. A contender for the Persian throne had hired them as mercenaries; but once they reached the Mesopotamian heartland, the Persian leader was killed in battle, and the Ten Thousand had to fight their way back, first against the Persian army and then against primitive hill tribes on their path to the Black Sea.  The Persians troops were somewhere between the berserker style and the disciplined Greeks. They relied on large masses to impress their enemy into submission; typically these were grouped by ethnicity, each with their own type of weapons. Among these weapons of terror were rows of chariots with scythes attached to their axles; sometimes there were war-elephants. Troops recruited from tribal regions were used on the flanks, as clusters of stone-slingers, archers, and javelin-throwers; these were light troops, without armor since they fought from a distance. The Persian armies that Alexander fought had the same shape.

None of these troops could beat a disciplined phalanx that held its ground; the chariots could get close only if they ran onto the phalanx’s spears, which horses are unwilling to do; elephants, too, are hard to control and shy away from spears. The Greeks soon recognized they could beat armies of almost any size if they stuck together. A bigger problem was that enemy light troops, and attacks by tribal forces with arrows and slings, could be repelled by their armor and discipline, but hoplites were too heavy to chase them down and keep them from repeating the attack.

The solution was to add specialized units around the phalanx; hiring their own barbarian archers and slingers, and adding cavalry, mainly for the purpose of finishing off the enemy when they are running away. But in the Greek homeland, most battles were simply phalanx-on-phalanx; in the democratic city-states, this was as much a display of egalitarian citizenship as a military formation.

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.

This was one of the advantages of Macedonia’s marchland location; having only recently transitioned from tribal pastoralists to settled agriculture, it could combine military styles. Philip’s phalanx was recruited from the peasant farmers, his cavalry from the aristocracy, used to spending their time riding and hunting. Philip’s-- and thus Alexander’s-- cavalry were called the Companions; they were the elite, the carousing drinking-buddies of their leader. The Companion cavalry, usually on the right wing of battle, was complemented by another cavalry on the left wing, recruited from the Thessalian plains people, but commanded by Macedonian officers.

In addition to improving on the best-of-the-barbarians, Philip also borrowed from the most scientifically advanced Greeks, the colonies in Sicily, for techniques of attacking fortresses. These included catapults and engines, underground mining (to undermine walls), siege ladders and protected roofing to cover the de-construction engineers as they worked on the fortress. 

The third of Philip’s innovations was to travel light. Greek city-state armies, if they went very far from home, traveled with huge baggage trains: servants carrying armor and supplies, personal slaves, women, camp followers, often doubling the size of the mass. Philip made every soldier carry his own equipment; he prohibited carts, since they are slow moving and clog the primitive roads; he kept pack animals to a minimum, since they add to the number of attendants. When an army has to engage in long-distance expeditions, overcoming the logistics problem becomes the number-one issue. As we shall see, Alexander followed his father exactly in this regard.

The Geopolitical Position, as Philip Left It

Macedonia was a late developer, a peripheral area north of the zone of city-states.  Moreover, it was essentially an inland state, not a maritime power; its strength was its extensive agricultural lands, and its access to the plains with their horses and pastoralists.

To the south was the Greek peninsula, broken by mountains and inlets of the sea, a land of walled city-states. Rarely able to expand their land frontiers, they engaged in maritime expeditions, lived by trade and booty, and by sending out colonies around the Mediterranean littoral. The same pattern held on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. The result was that Greek city-states could rarely conquer each other. Some did become more prestigious than others, and forced the others into coalitions. This Athens did when it became the center for the massed fleet that repelled the Persian invasions, subsequently becoming a quasi-empire in their own right collecting duties to support the fleet. *  But as land powers, the city-states were essentially deadlocked. 

* The cultural prestige of Athens starts at this time. Before 460 BC, Greek poets, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists were spread all over; they concentrate in Athens when it becomes the biggest, richest, and most powerful city. The cultural fame of Athens is a result of its geopolitical rise. It became the place where all the culture-producing networks came together, and remained the place for centuries as the leading networks reproduced themselves.

Simultaneously, the Persian empire had reached the limits of its logistics and its administrative capacity for holding itself together. There was no longer any real danger of Persian expansion into Greece; it was just another player in the multi-player situation. The Persian invasions were in 490 and 480-79 BC; both failed because the Persians could not sustain an army across the water against navies equal to what they could raise. The last Persian forces on the European side of the straits were thrown out by 465 BC. The Athenians played up the Persian threat as the basis of their own power, down to about 400, when they lost a long domestic war of coalitions.**

** The defeat of Athens by Sparta was not the end of democracy, or anything of the sort. Greek history is dominated by Athenian propaganda, because the great historians of this period-- Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon-- were all Athenians or sympathizers. It helped that Socrates and Plato were Athenians, and their dialogues make the Athenian scene come alive, as do the comedies of Aristophanes. That is why we moderns, styling ourselves inheritors to Greek democracy and science, have such a narrow Athenian peep-hole view into the history of Greece. 

The period from the 390s BC down to the rise of Macedonia in the 340s, is one where numerous powers and coalitions vie with each other. Sparta, Athens, Thebes, the Boeotian league, the Phocians, all have a try at becoming hegemon. The term itself is revealing: it means, not conqueror or overlord, but leader, preponderant influence. The situation has settled into a multi-sided, unstably ongoing set of conflicts.

Outside the deadlocked heartland, there was opportunity for a marchland state to grow. Since the major players had their attention locked in, a peripheral actor could grow in its own environment, becoming dominant through a local elimination contest. This is what the Macedonian kingdom did. First its settled agricultural zone expanded inland to incorporate nearby hill tribes, recruiting them into a victoriously expanding army; then growing north and east into Thrace (what is now Bulgaria and European Turkey) by beating barbarian kings and weak tribal coalitions. 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.

[2] Tiger Woods Training

Alexander was born in 356 BC, a time when his father was reforming the Macedonian army and beginning his conquests. Obviously Philip was away from home a lot and would not have taken a small child with him to the wars. But it is apparent that from an early age, he trained Alexander by informal apprenticeship, having him around him when he could. The famous incident with the horse Bucephalas happened when Alexander was 10 years old, and his father was buying warhorses. One magnificent horse was too shy and unruly to be ridden, and Philip was going to send it back until Alexander begged to have a try at taming it. The story goes on to say he had noticed the horse was frightened by its moving shadow, so he turned the horse’s face into the sun, soothed it by stroking, and finally jumped on its back and galloped off. Leaving aside the usual hero-foreshadowing and prophetic comments that went along with the story, we can note that Alexander was already a careful observer who figured out how to manage those around him; that he was both impetuous and calculating, biding his time for the moment to act. This was not just a colorful story of a boy and his horse; it shows a remarkably mature 10-year-old; and the qualities Alexander shows are much the same as his father’s. 

Though father and son butted heads and engaged in mutual jealousy, it was clear that Philip regarded Alexander from an early age as the kind of officer he wanted to follow him. At age 16, when Philip was away on campaign, he left Alexander as regent, and he jumped right in, putting down revolts by leading the army in person. Thereafter, Alexander accompanied him on campaigns, commanding the key unit in battle, the Companion cavalry.

Philip had other sons he could have groomed for this role. Alexander’s mother was Philip’s fourth wife out of an eventual total of eight, and Alexander had a number of step-brothers (most of whom came to a bad end, since infighting over succession was common and bloody). We can infer Alexander had opportunities to show his aptitude early; which is to say, he picked up his father’s military art quickly and thus was given still further opportunities, in a self-reinforcing virtuous circle. He was already distancing himself from all rivals.

Famously, Alexander was taught by Aristotle, in a private school lavishly endowed by Philip. This happened between age 13 and 16. Alexander enjoyed the learning, largely in literature like Homer, rather than technical philosophy. But it could not have been too cloistered a period, since at its end, Philip gives the 16-year-old his own army command; and Alexander’s school-mates, sons of the Macedonian aristocracy, come along with him as companions and generals in his future exploits.

What is it that Alexander learned during his apprenticeship? Obviously, Philip’s tactics for leading an army in battle; also how to recruit and train it, since during Alexander’s 10-year expedition he replenished his army several times over. He must have learned how to travel with a light baggage train, since this is what Alexander did on his Persian campaign. Perhaps this was the province of his father’s generals, notably Parmenio, an older man of his father’s generation who gave cautious advice on some famous occasions. (“If I were Alexander, I would accept the offer...” to divide the Persian empire with the defeated Persian King. “And so would I,” Alexander retorted, “if I were Parmenio.”)  Parmenio was delegated ticklish problems like commanding non-Macedonian troops, arranging logistics and baggage trains; and it may well be that in the early part of Alexander’s campaign, officers like Parmenio took care of the essential grunt-work.

Even so, it would be an extended apprenticeship for the 22-year-old. What Alexander showed he had learned, when he left Parmenio and the old advisors behind for the Eastern part of his conquests, was the crucial combination of logistics and diplomacy.

Why do these two go together? We have already discussed the problem of baggage trains slowing down an army’s movement. On long-distance expeditions, the question is whether an army can get there at all. The basic problem, as modern researchers have figured out, is that the people and animals that carry food and water use them up as they go along, and the more mouths in the supply train, the less gets through to the army. *

* This had to have been understood by professional soldiers like Alexander, but ancient historians never wrote about it, since they concentrated on heroic personalities and dramatic incidents and ignored banal realities. They also exaggerated enormously the size of enemy armies, part of the hero narrative, claiming impossible numbers like 1,700,000 Persians invading Greece in 480 BC; and 1,000,000 on the battlefield at Gaugamela. These numbers are impossible because such troops would need huge empty spaces just to stand on; and stretched out marching on narrow roads they would have covered 300 miles, making it impossible to feed them.

Using animals to do the carrying doesn’t solve anything. A horse can carry three times as much as a man, but it consumes three times the weight in food and water; camels can go four days without water, but then they have to drink four times as much.

Solution: live off the land. But there are two problems. One, it only works in good agricultural land. But ancient agriculture was mostly around the cities-- to put it the other way around, ancient cities had to be adjacent to agricultural land or to water transport, or they would starve. Inland, cities and good agriculture were like oases, with poor land in between supporting at best a sparse population. So traveling across poor land, or worse yet, deserts like those in Iran or Egypt, posed a life-or-death problem for an army. The bigger the army, the more deadly it was to itself.

The second problem is that a big  army would have to keep moving, because even in fertile places, food and fodder would be exhausted in a steadily widening circle. And agriculture gets exhausted as the army passes through. The bigger the army, the more it creates a path of no return, since if it comes back (or a rival army, or a reinforcing one tries to use the same route), it will find nothing to eat. At best, it must wait til next year, next harvest season-- assuming the army has not killed off the farmers by eating up all their food so that they starve.

How did Alexander’s army solve this problem? Essentially, by diplomacy. It would send scouts or messengers ahead, seeking out availability of food and water. * Local chieftans or government officials presented themselves at the camp as word got around about an approaching army. Typically they would surrender to the conqueror, whereupon he would usually confirm them in their positions, enlisting them as allies. This meant they were obligated to help his army pass through their territory. Diplomacy on the whole meant generosity and persuasion. Alexander didn’t have to conquer everybody; leveling one resisting city and selling the population into slavery would be enough to bring the others around. In places where there was distrust, the invaders would leave a garrison, or demand hostages. It was a mild form of conquest, which left everything locally as it had been.

* We see the same thing in the Bible, when Jesus and a growing crowd of followers travel from Galilee in northern Israel to Jerusalem, a distance of 100 miles. Jesus sends out 70 forerunners to find towns to host them. It is not a military expedition, but Jesus calls down religious sanctions on the villages that refuse to receive them. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! ... And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to heaven? No, you will go down to Hades.” [Luke 10: 1-16] Logistical issues recur throughout Jesus’ career, since big crowds overstress local resources: hence the need for miracles of multiplying loaves and fishes, and turning water into wine.

The essential thing was that new allies or friendly natives were obligated to provide stores of food and fodder along the route; pack animals to replace those lost by  malnourishment, or to marshal their own local pack trains.

For Alexander’s army, the method worked well. It also explains why it took 10 years to conquer the empire. Conquering the eastern part meant more marches through deserts and mountains, careful planning of when harvests were available, and more advance diplomacy.

Alexander fought relatively few battles. After each one, he would stay in a well-provided location, receive visits of capitulation, and arrange logistics for the way ahead. His father, building a mini-empire on the barbarian fringes of Greece, was ruthless when he needed to be, but on the whole Philip expanded by diplomacy. It all meshed together: his fast-moving army, his combined-arms victories, and his diplomatic agreements that solved problems of logistics. His son operated the same way.

Philip, too, had been a keen-eyed youth. His adolescent years were spent as a hostage in Thebes in the 360s. At the time, its famous general Epaminondas was dominating Greece by building a full-time professional army, inventing combined-arms tactics and the strategy of holding forces in reserve; instead of the one-shot shoving match between hoplite phalanxes, Epaminondas created a two-stage battle where after the intial melée had tied up the enemy, his fresh troops would hit them on the flank. Philip developed a version of this tactic, using heavy cavalry.

Philip took over as King at age 24, not much older than Alexander at 20. Both learned their craft young, from the best of the previous generation. Both hit the ground running.

[3] The Target for Takeover

Alexander's expedition 334-324 BC

Most importantly, Alexander’s success depended on the fact that the Persian Empire was there for the taking.

Let us unpack this. The Empire was already an organized entity. Cyrus, Darius I, and their successors had created a unified administrative structure out of what previously had been several major kingdoms (Media, Babylon, Egypt), plus lesser kingdoms, plus a vast area that never before had been a state in the strong sense of the term. Back in the time of Cyrus in the 500s BC, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two great fertile river valleys of the Middle-East, had already gone through their elimination contests and winnowed down to a few strong states based on big populations held together by water transport. But Iran, the uplands of Asia Minor and Armenia, and the adjacent plains of Central Asia, were still areas inhabited by sparse populations. Some were moving pastoralists, who formed at most shifting tribal coalitions. Others lived in pockets and valleys where agriculture could support a mid-size population and therefore petty kingdoms; but they lacked the logistics to supply an army big enough to conquer anybody, by carrying enough food and water to get across the infertile areas between them.

Cross-section of mountain barriers to Iranian plateau

What Cyrus did was essentially what Alexander did later: starting from the major pockets of population and agriculture, he would win a few exemplary victories, then use his prestige to invite or overawe the outlying areas, with their lower level of production, to enlist as friends and allies. We could call this a system of tribute; the Great King, as Cyrus and his successors were known, was more than just an ordinary King, but overlord of lords.  He did not change much locally; the same chiefs and petty kings remained in place, but they had to pay tribute. Above all, they had to provide goods in kind, especially the animals and foodstuff so that royal armies could pass that way.*

* In this respect, the expansive emperors, Darius and Xerxes, regarded the Greek city-states of Asia Minor and the other side of the Aegean sea as just so many more candidates for incorporation into the system of overlordship. Greek historians, and some contemporary politicians, saw this as a life-or-death struggle between democracy or despotism, but this was an exaggeration. From the Persian point of view, the Greek city-states were a version of small remote kingdoms, too much trouble to be directly controlled. The city-states of Ionia under Persian overlordship were left to run their own internal affairs; some continued to be democracies, others were oligarchies but this was the same spectrum as the Greek mainland. On the whole tribute was light, in fact generally less than what the Athenians demanded to maintain the anti-Persian fleet.

This was a thin administrative system.  In some places, a tributary empire could be turned into a thicker, more intrusive system. Cyrus, Darius, and their stronger successors put their own administrators in place: high-level satraps, intermediate level governors, local garrisons. In richer places, older city-kingdoms like Babylon, taxes could be collected in money for the royal treasury. Paved roads were built, facilitating the faster movement of  armies to keep things under control; messengers connected administrators and sent policy edicts throughout the Empire. With only moderate success, to be sure; satraps were often near-autonomous; and since they ruled over layers of locals most of whose traditional leaders were kept in place, they often had little effect except keeping the taxes or tribute coming in.  Under the stronger Persian regimes, regional power was divided among a civilian head of government, counterbalanced by a chief treasury officer, and a military commander. There also was a service called “Eyes and Ears of the King,” roving inspectors with their own military escorts.

To repeat: Alexander’s success depended on the fact that the Persian Empire was there for the taking.  Now for the second part.

That it was for the taking was a common observation in Greece from the 390s onwards. The success of the Ten Thousand in fighting their way back from the heart of the Empire convinced them that Greek forces (and Greek democratic spirit) could always beat the servile Asians.

Spartan generals and other military stars of following decades put themselves forward as prospective leaders of such a conquest. Such names were popular in the panhellenic movement, what was left of the Athenian anti-Persian crusade. The famous Athenian orator Isocrates proposed that the solution of Greece’s problems was just such an expedition: not because Persia was still a menace, but because it was an easy target.  Greece’s problem was there were too many poor men wandering around joining armies. In the past Greece had taken care of its excess population by founding colonies around the Mediterranean. But that area was getting politically filled up, with menacing states in the west like Carthage and Rome. The solution was to expand eastward, conquering land from the Persians. The most recent of these prospective saviours was named: Philip of Macedon. Left unsaid was the fact that Philip was becoming a threat to the Greeks; better get him off to Asia and out of the way. After Philip’s assassination, Alexander made a foray into Greece with his army, and got himself confirmed as commander in chief (hegemon) of the panhellenic army, which now really would set out on this task.

Why an easy target? The Greeks could see clearly enough that their military forces were tactically better than the Persians. Moreover, Persia had long since stopped expanding. It had become a familiar player in Greek geopolitics, much like any other contender, taking part in one coalition, then another. Most striking of all must have been the way the Empire was periodically roiled whenever a King died. The satraps would revolt, and several years went into getting them back under control.  And Persian succession crises were filled with betrayals and assassinations, decimating the royal families several times over. It last had just happened in 338 BC, and had not yet settled down when Philip was ready to launch his invasion two years later. 

All this was true. Alexander was able to pick apart the Persian Empire in Asia Minor with ease. Beating one Persian army at Granicus soon after he landed, and besieging one holdout city (a Greek city, by the way, Miletus) was enough to make the rest of the polities, Greek cities, semi-Greek kings, and Persian satraps alike, all come over to his diplomacy, and to supply his logistics.

It wasn’t until next year that the newly installed Great King could muster troops to meet Alexander in Syria, already in reach of the Mesopotamian heartland. Darius III was a survivor, not a particularly vigorous ruler, who got the crown mainly because he was almost the last of the lineage still alive.

That Alexander’s takeover of the Persian Empire went off without a single defeat was less a result of his singular qualities as a general, than of the weakness of Persian administrative and military structure. Alexander spent 10 years on the takeover, not because it was difficult, but because it was so large. Logistically, he needed that much time to make a grand tour of his Iranian and Eastern possessions after, in the 4th year, he had occupied the major cities, defeated Darius, and assumed his crown.

But also, the Persian Empire had enough structure so that is could be taken over-- as opposed to crumbling to pieces. Even in the wars among Alexander’s successors, the central part remained intact, while the Macedonia/ Asian Minor segment and the Egyptian segment broke off, leaving the big state outlines more or less where they were.  The Persian Empire, under whatever name, had coherence as a network, and it didn’t matter who headed it. In this perspective, the bloody, protracted and treacherous 20-year fight among Alexander’s successors continued the pattern of succession crises whenever the Persian Great King died. And this is what Alexander, in title, had become.

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. I have already said something similar about Philip’s relationship to his son. But to focus on names is to miss the point about how structures change.

Alexander made no changes to the Persian administration. His methods of conquest were the same as those of Cyrus: he accepted surrenders, then usually reconfirmed the former official in office-- sometimes even after they had opposed him in battle. Perhaps he did this out of gallantry; or recognizing competence where he saw it. Also it was the easiest thing to do, much easier than trying to create an administration of his own. In some places he left garrisons, and in the heartland regions he installed his own officials as satraps, and tried to reinstitute the 3-official system (administrator, treasurer, military commander) where it had fallen into disuse. But the end result was essentially to put the organization of the Persian Empire back in working order.

The panhellenic prognosticators were right. The Persian Empire was ready for a takeover. But the end result was no different. Alexander was not great enough to make a structural change.

[4]  Greek Population Explosion and Mercenaries

Greece had been in a population explosion from the 600s BC (when it had about half a million people) until 400 BC (when it reached 3 million). The city-states sponsored colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and around the Black Sea, without slowing down the population surge, so the overall growth must have been even larger. One big result of Alexander’s conquest was to open the Asian Middle-East and Egypt to colonization. This time it worked; Greece’s population started falling, down to 2 million by 1 AD, a loss of about one-third. During this same period, the Persian Empire and its successors (the Macedonian and Hellenistic successor states in Asia and Egypt), grew from about 14 million total in 400 BC to 17 million in 1 AD, with most of the growth in the Greek-dominated areas of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.

One could say Alexander’s conquest solved the problem of Greek overpopulation relative to its resources, which Greek observers had seen as the result of growing concentration of wealth, dispossession of poorer farmers from their land, and the creation of a dangerous class of rootless warriors.

Reversing the gestalt, it was not so much Alexander who made possible the migration of the Greeks, as the other way around: the mobile Greek surplus population, already employed as warriors, made up the armies that carried Alexander to success. We see this in the growth of mercenaries, starting at least 100 years before Alexander.

Already at the time of Darius the Great, the Persian king was employing Greeks to command a fleet surveying the coast from India to Arabia, and even to survey the coast of Greece preliminary to invasion. Around 450 BC, Greek mercenaries were employed by Persia to put down an internal revolt by a satrap in Asia Minor. The famous Ten Thousand hired by the pretender Cyrus to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes in 401 BC were the first time Greek hoplites were seen on the plain of Mesopotamia. By the 350s, Artaxerxes III was hiring his own Greek mercenaries to regain Egypt. Thus it was no surprise when Alexander, in his first battle of conquest, at Granicus in Asia Minor 334 BC, fought an army made up of Persian cavalry, local infantry, plus a force of Greek mercenaries who fought longer and harder than anyone else, and were massacred by Alexander after the end of the battle. At the climactic battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, King Darius III surrounded his personal bodyguard with Greek mercenaries.

In part this was the professionalization of warfare. Most fighters in the Greek wars of the 400s BC were part-time citizen-soldiers; the following century turned increasingly to full-time professionals. Greek hoplites acquired the reputation as the best brand, and their services were bought ever farther away in the international market. Greek generals offered to hire out to any city, tribe or kingdom that needed them. Political loyalty and nationalist ideology were nowhere near as important as the Athenian panhellenists made them out to be. Some soldiers were ideological, many were not. Already in Xerxes’ invasion of 480 BC, Arcadians (Greek soldiers from the interior) offered their services to the Persians, out of poverty. In the city-states, mercenaries were regarded with suspicion for precisely this reason; they were apolitical roughnecks, ready to fight for whoever had money to pay them; hence when the Ten Thousand completed their great escape from Persia, the Greek cities viewed them with distrust and refused to admit them. But even in ideological wars mercenaries were used; the Athenians for instance used them for the dirty work of massacreing enemy cities during the Peloponnesian war.   Eventually everybody used them; Alexander too had mercenaries in his army, although he preferred to rely on his native Macedonians, and reserved officer positions for them.

The panhellenic ideology of Greeks vs. Persians was never a widespread reality. Already at the time of Cyrus the Great, most of the Greek cities of Asia Minor were brought into his empire by subsidies, bribes, and treachery. Even Athens and Sparta wavered between pro- and anti-Persian positions; it was generally the democratic faction who favored Persian protection and peace, the conservatives who favored war. After the invasions were thrown back, there was a Sparta-Persia alliance during most of the 400s BC; Persian tribute in Ionia was less than the Athenian exactions, and some cities preferred Persian to Athenian imperialism; and Persian subsidies-- Persian gold-- financed Sparta to victory in the Peloponnesian war.  During the 300s, the fluctuating Greek powers were all willing, at one time or another, to make Persian alliances.

One thing that connected mercenaries with Persian foreign policy was money. Mercenaries, by definition, fought for pay; and they flourished in the same milieu where subsidies/ aid/ bribery were a weapon of statecraft. The entire Middle-East, and its peripheral zones like Greece, were becoming better organized: in infrastructure of roads, shipping and ports; in administration, travel and communications; in agricultural production to support larger populations, in trade, tribute, and taxation. Coinage and a layer of monetary economy above the subsistence sector existed by the 500s, and was widespread by the 300s. In that sense, the argument about the spread of mercenaries is the same as the argument that the advanced organization of the Persian Empire made it a candidate for conquest. Not only was there a population explosion in Greece, but also a market flowing towards the better-organized East, where there was money to buy the thing that Greeks were best at producing: top-flight military labor. From a higher level of analysis, the growth of mercenaries, the shift of Greek population to the East, and Alexander’s conquest were all the same process.

[5]  Alexander’s Victory Formula

Besides diplomacy and advance logistics, how did he actually conduct a battle? Not quite what you’d think: not just a headlong attack, but a mixture of caution and impulsiveness.

A better word would be patience. Alexander took risks once battle began, but his strategy of when and where to give battle was the opposite of risk-taking.

Alexander recognized that a big Persian army could not stay in one place very long. The bigger it is, the less it can live off the land; and bringing in supplies generates the vanishing-point mathematics of pack animals and humans eating up the supplies they are carrying, not to mention clogging the available roads.

Facing huge armies, Alexander delayed accepting battle. Before Issus, Darius assembled several hundred thousands on a plain near the Syrian Gates, where the Macedonians would be expected to come out of the mountains of Asia Minor. The plain gave unrestricted maneuverability for a large army, and there had been time to stockpile ample supplies. Alexander, crossing them up, went on a 7-day campaign westward against the mountain tribes. Then he returned to a city where he was well supplied by sea, made elaborate sacrifices to the gods; held a review of the army; athletic and literary contests; even a relay race with torches. Finally Darius had to move, and went seeking Alexander in the narrow region of mountains and swamps, throwing away his advantage of open ground. After two weeks inland, no doubt hurting for supplies, Darius finally met Alexander at the Issus River, where the Persian army-- now down to about 150,000-- was packed in and unable to use superior numbers to outflank or surround  him.

At Gaugamela 3 years later, Darius had an even bigger army, on a wide plain supplied by the main roads of Mesopotamia. They even cleared away bushes so that their scythe-bearing chariot wheels had room to roll.  Alexander brought his army, now grown to 45,000, to a hill overlooking the plain, where at night the torches seemed to go on forever. Since the Persians were not going to move, Alexander gave his army four days rest. Alexander was also playing psychological warfare, not letting the Persians fight in their first flush of enthusiasm (the adrenalin rush, we would say).  Their suspense grew even worse, since they began to expect a night attack, so after several sleep-depriving nights of this, Alexander chose to attack in the daylight.

Alexander always started the battle. His formula was to seize the initiative, establish emotional domination as quickly as possible. His open-field battles all became walkovers. The units of the Macedonian army—infantry phalanx, light troops, heavy cavalry on both wings—advanced at different times, but the key was always Alexander’s assault.  Once the Companion cavalry broke the Persian ranks in an intense but usually short fight, the Persians' advantage in numbers was turned against themselves.

At Issus, the Persians had large numbers of troops, realistically perhaps four times the size of Alexander’s, lined up along a river bank. But most of those tens or hundreds of thousands could never engage the Macedonians, because they couldn’t get close to them. Once their defense crumbled on the right, Alexander turned obliquely against the center; this threw the Persian army into a stampede, particularly disabling when so many men trample each other in a traffic jam. In every major battle, the Persians lost 50 percent or more, the Macedonians a small fraction, perhaps 1 percent or less. The disparity in casualties seems unbelievable, but it is commensurate with complete organizational breakdown of one side, making them helpless victims. In violence on all size-scales, emotional domination precedes most physical damage. 

At Granicus, Alexander positioned himself opposite where the Persian commander was surrounded by bodyguards. He waited for the moment when he saw a wavering in the Persian line, and charged his cavalry at that point. Alexander led 2000 or so cavalry splashing through the water and up a steep bank. This might seem a risky thing to do. But psychologically, relying on favorable geography for defense is a weakness; once the advantage of terrain turns out to be ineffective, the defending side has set itself up to be emotionally dominated.  In every respect, Alexander aimed at the point of emotional weakness-- a point in time and space, visible to a good observer.

Alexander did not have to fight the entire Persian army; he picked a unit about his own size, and counted on the superior quality of his troops-- the superiority they created by generating emotional domination.

All three of Alexander’s fateful victories-- Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela-- ended the same way, with the enemy commander (in the last two, the King himself) running away in his chariot, setting off a general panic retreat.  At Gaugamela, the Persian forces were so large and spread out that Parmenio, commanding on the left, had a stiff fight with Greek mercenaries and other Persian forces who did not know the rest of their army was routed. It took longer but Parmenio, too-- the other cavalry commander-- emerged victorious without Alexander’s help. This shows that the Macedonian style was not personal to Alexander alone.

There is another respect in which Alexander attacked the weakness of the Persian army. It was an army of an empire, a polyglot of 50 different ethnic groups, with their own languages, each fighting in their own formation. The army that invaded Greece under Xerxes had 30 generals, all Persian aristocrats; the armies of Darius III were probably similar. We can surmise that central control of the army, once battle began, was minimal. We can also infer that morale and loyalty of each ethnic unit was shakey; they had been recruited by going over to the victor, and they were aware of the possibility of going over to the other side if things did not go well. * There was also the rigid hierarchy of the Persian army-- something all the Greeks commented on.

* This was the pattern of warfare in India before the arrival of European officers. Battlefields were displays of ferocious weapons-- chariots, elephants and so on-- but outcomes were decided mostly by side-switching in the midst of battle but arranged beforehand. (Philip Mason. 1976. The Indian Army.)

Why this would make a difference is illuminated by observations by Western troops serving in today’s Middle-Eastern wars. American and British forces in Afghanistan, for instance, have commented that local troops can be ferocious in combat, and like the action of getting into a fight. (I have this from personal accounts, and military publications.) Their main weakness is in their officers, especially the NCOs. Whereas American NCOs are trained to take initiative, especially when higher organization gets disrupted during the fog of battle, Middle-Eastern officers are wary of doing anything they might be criticized for. ** Success as an officer is not necessarily a good thing. Outstanding success makes one a political threat; it also could be interpreted as showing up one’s superiors. Extrapolating backwards to Alexander’s time, there are numerous reasons why ethnic troops and their lower officers would not fight vigorously for their Persian commanders, if the battle started going against them. Generals who failed risked being executed; but generals who succeeded were potential rebels, and many of them got executed or assassinated in a few years anyway, in the distrustful politics of the Empire.

** In this respect, the Roman army was more like the contemporary American one. Centurions-- leaders of a company of 100-- were widely regarded as the backbone of the army, and treated as such by successful generals. Also similar were the widespread opportunities for upward mobility in the revolutionary French army at the time of Napoleon.

A puzzle: by the time of Alexander’s invasion, the Persian army had its own Greek hoplite mercenaries. At Gaugamela, King Darius deployed 15,000. Since the tactical quality of the troops was the same, why didn’t the Persians’ Greeks stymie Alexander’s? Most likely because of the organizational atmosphere of the Persian army. The Greek mercenaries were hemmed in by the status-conscious Persian command structure. Proof by comparison is in the wars that took place, in the same region, among the Hellenistic successor states after Alexander’s death. When the composition of the armies became the same on both sides, outcomes went back to pretty much even.

For Alexander, a few big battles were enough to make the loyalty structure crumble, setting in motion the massive side-switching and the diplomatic offensive at which Alexander was adept.  We should add a number of sieges, first on the Ionian coast, and then in the Levant, above all the sieges of Tyre, the harbor stronghold of Phoenician naval power, and Gaza, on the road to Egypt. Alexander’s sieges were no different than anyone else’s. It took patience, and he spent 7 months at Tyre, determined to break through its strong-walled defenses. His eventual victory came by employing the most advanced Greek engineering methods of the time; but also through a strategic move. The Phoenicians could not be starved out, since they were supplied by sea. Alexander found a way around this by making diplomatic deals with other seaport cities, to bring their fleets to attack Tyre from the water. This worked; a combined land and sea attack breached the city. When he got to Egypt (which simply surrendered), he founded his most important colonial city, Alexandria, as a new naval center. This had the effect of giving him secure sea routes at his back, and quicker resupply lines for reinforcements from Greece. In military perspective, it was a fine combination of strategic and tactical plans.

Finally, there are the stories about Alexander’s clever strategems where his advance was blocked by an extremely strong position, like a fort in a mountain pass. As always in such stories, someone discovers a little-used pathway over the dangerous mountainside, leading around to the rear of the enemy. Alexander leads a body of intrepid troops on this action-adventure, and all is well in the end. Using bad weather as a cover also helps take the enemy by surprise. I don’t doubt the truth of these stories; but they are commonplaces about generals throughout history (there are similar stories in Xenophon). Most of these battles were minor; none of them broke the back of the enemy organization.

Was Alexander’s Success Because of or Despite His Personality?

“Personality” is a noun, but that is merely how it operates in our grammar. What we mean by personality, what the word points to, is not a thing at all but a series of actions. Personality is the sum total of someone’s personal interactions.

Some incidents of Alexander’s personal dealings with others were scandalously famous. In the seventh year of his campaign, his army was in Samarkand, far away in what is now Uzbekistan. At one of their frequent drinking-parties, Alexander got into a dispute with one of the Companions of the elite cavalry. It was his oldest friend, Cleitus-- his foster-brother, since Cleitus’ mother had nursed and brought up the two of them together. Both were drinking heavily. Cleitus began badgering Alexander about introducing Persian customs, especially making everyone who approached him prostrate themselves on the ground, treating him as a god on earth. Cleitus said it was offensive to his old friends, that an army wins as a group but he was taking all the credit for himself, that he is forgetting who-- Cleitus-- saved Alexander’s life at Granicus.

Alexander grew angrier and angrier. Cleitus’ friends tried to pull him out of the room, but he barged back in through another entrance, shouting another insult. (This is the typical escalation of a bar-room quarrel; it is usually when one of the partisans in a face contest has been ejected and makes a return, that somebody gets killed.) What happens next is revealing in the way Alexander was treated by his personal companions and servants. Alexander called on his guards to sound the alarm-- the signal that would have roused the entire camp to arms. None of the guards obeyed the order; they must have been used to such quarrels, and defied their god-playing King to keep the situation from getting out of hand. Since no one obeyed him, Alexander grabbed a spear and hurled it at Cleitus, killing him.

Immediately he calmed down. He tried to kill himself with the same spear but his guards prevented it. He retired to his room, and stayed there berating himself for days. Finally his advisors prevailed on him to put the incident behind him. He resumed acting like a Persian king-god, at least in public. About this time began a series of plots, rumoured assassinations and real executions. Two of his favorite Companions had drawn swords on each other; Alexander settled the matter by telling them he would execute them both if they quarreled again. He also delegated them separate tasks, one to convey orders to the Greek-speakers, the other to the Persians and foreigners in his army.

A flashback reveals something deeper in the interactional style of Alexander, and the Macedonian court where he grew up. When Alexander was 18, his father had taken a new wife, and at the wedding party the girl’s uncle-- one of Philip’s generals--- gave a toast to a new heir. Alexander threw his drinking cup at the man’s head and shouted: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” Philip drew his sword to cut down his son, but failed because he was too drunk to stand up. Alexander and his mother had to go into exile, but eventually he was recalled. Not long after, Philip was assassinated by another intimate with a dagger, Alexander’s mother had the new wife and her baby killed, and Alexander became the new King.

Heavy drinking, brawls, plots and assassinations were common at the Macedonian court (as the latter were in Persia too, although it is not clear that drinking was involved.)  There are striking similarities between Alexander killing Cleitus, and Philip trying to kill Alexander. Philip was a tough, brawling fighter, years of violence having left him with one eye, a crippled hand, and numerous wounds. Alexander was wrecking his own body the same way. Both did heavy drinking with the aristocratic heart of their army. Both relied on the same battle tactics, leading the charge, inspiring the cavalry attack. There was no way Alexander could avoid keeping up these drinking bouts; he continued them until he died from one of them  Drinking was the ritual of bonding among the group that won his victories. Alexander’s carousing seems to contradict his patience in arranging logistics and awaiting the proper moment for marching or battle. But these were parts of the same thing: having to wait around so much gave occasion for carousing, a way of keeping up morale during dead time.

Now Alexander is in a structural bind. As Persian King, and in constant diplomacy playing King of Kings to the chieftans 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.*

* Compare the protocol of King Xerxes (reigned 485-465 BC) described in the Old Testament Book of Esther. She is a beautiful Jewish woman who has become Queen, top rank in the harem. But she risks her life in leaving her house to enter the King’s presence uninvited.  Fortunately for Esther, and for her people, the King is happy to see her, and she is able to countermand an order sent out by royal messengers that would have killed all the Jews in the Empire. The storyline in Esther hinges repeatedly on who is allowed into the royal presence; at the outset, the previous Queen is deposed because she refuses to come when the King wants to show her off at one of his all-male drinking parties. Which way the royal scepter pointed meant favor, or death. Similar protocol at Babylon is described in the Book of Daniel. Alexander was moving towards being that kind of Oriental potentate-- and the Greeks were the first to formulate the ideas of Orientalism.  Thus it is striking how much freedom from deference, how much equality existed in Alexander’s drinking parties. It is astounding that his guards refused to obey his orders, and even laid hands on him forcefully to prevent his suicide. They too were part of the team.

Philip and Alexander have the same double personalities. ** Philip, though a bad-tempered brawler and ferocious battle leader, also is the master of diplomacy. We have seen that Alexander’s conquest would not have been possible without having learned to solve logistics problems by diplomacy. After some battles he could massacre the defeated; but also he could be magnanimous. With some conquered kings and other high aristocrats, Alexander not only would restore them to their position, but treat them with great courtesy.  Such magnanimity would also have been good for his diplomatic reputation, encouraging side-switchers to approach him. I am not suggesting it was simply a strategy Alexander played. Personality is made from the outside in; habitual styles of interacting with people become part of the way one is. Since Alexander’s daily life fluctutates among different kinds of situations, he has many personality facets-- to fall back on talking in nouns, an unavoidable but misleading feature of our language. His life consisted of situations when he played the hard-drinking fraternity boy, and when he played the diplomat; increasingly as he took over Persian organization, he took on the side of arrogant ruler, paranoid about plots.

**  One respect in which they differ is that Alexander was not very interested in sex. He joshes his friends for their love affairs, but seems to have been a virgin until age 23, when Parmenio gave him a captive Persian woman. Plutarch records that the captive wife and daughters of the King and women of the court were “tall and beautiful”, but Alexander would say sardonically “What eyesores these Persian women are!” Nor does it appear that he was homosexual-- although that would have been normal in Greece-- since he forcefully rejected a present of two beautiful boys.  Alexander was a monomaniac about the army and dangerous physical action-- he preferred hunting lions. Very likely he regarded women as dangerous entanglements, sources of strife and assassination. Observing not just his father, but his mother, would have taught him that.

Here are some other facets, or episodes:

The Impetuous Leader

The only route from the royal city of Persepolis in southern Iran to Ecbatana, the old Median capital in the northwest mountains, led over a 8000 foot pass, often blocked from winter until April. But in March 330 BC, Alexander was eager to get through. The ancient historian Curtius describes it with a touch of melodrama: “They had come to a pass blocked with perpetual snows, bound in ice by the violence of the cold. The desolation of the landscape and the pathless solitudes terrified the exhausted soldiers, who believed they were at the end of the world, and demanded to return before even daylight and sky should fail them.” Alexander reacted by leaping from his horse, seizing a mattock from a soldier and furiously attacking the ice, chopping a path through. It was the same way he led the cavalry charge in combat, pulling his troops behind him.

In summer they are marching through a desert, suffering from heat and lack of water. One day, an advance party found a gulley stream, and were bringing water up on pack animals as Alexander marched by on foot with his soldiers, sharing their misery. A soldier filled a helmet with water and held it out to Alexander. As he was raising it to drink, he saw his cavalry soldiers looking at him thirstily. Alexander shook his head and dashed the water to the ground-- his cavalry shouted they could all go another day without water and they galloped off together. One wasted helmet of water, Plutarch comments, invigorated the whole army.

Flashforward four years. Alexander’s army is preparing to leave Bactria, in far-off Central Asia. The campaign has been successful; they are laden with booty, rugs, silks, luxuries, probably a throng of camp followers. Alexander looks at the loaded supply train, just the kind of thing that would drag them down. Burn it all! And he starts in with his own wagons and pack animals, tearing off the bundles and throwing them into a fire. There is a shocked moment: then his soldiers join in, one after another; soon they are yelling in contagious joy, throwing things into the fire.  It is a combination potlatch and display of military dedication, waking up from the soporific dreams of peace.

Why does he act so much better on campaign than he does in court or in camp? He is an action junkie; the soft life repels him. But it is part of being a great King, and that has been his life’s goal. As long as there is another battle to fight, another danger to brave, he in in tune with his men, his buddies, his Companions.

Two Mutinies

Eastward into India, crossing one tentacle of the upper Indus River after another, the army penetrates the exotic tropics. They win a great battle against a huge host, armed with elephants; Alexander receives the Indian King’s surrender, then returns his kingdom to him with an exchange of royal compliments. The war-plus-diplomacy formula is still working. Then: his troops refuse to go on. Not just the men; his officers come to explain what the soldiers are saying, they agree with it too. Alexander is devastated. He retires into his tent, refuses to talk with anyone. He announces the rest can go back; he will go on with whoever will accompany him. No one offers. It is like the days after he had murdered Cleitus. But Alexander is harder now, older too; he gets over it, reluctantly agrees to lead his army down the river to the sea, starting their return to the West.

But his mood has changed. Already, since the murders and suspicions and executions in Central Asia, Alexander had grown more personally violent. He shot with an arrow a barbarian chief brought to him for rebelling.** Later, reprimanding his administrators for corruption in his absence, he killed one with his own hand by the stroke of a javelin. When Parmenio’s son is implicated in one of the alleged plots, Alexander not only killed the son but sent orders to assassinate the father.

** Millenia later, in the same part of the world, this was still a style of the super-toughguy leader; in the Russian civil war around 1920  the chief of the partisans/bandits would personally execute a captive in front of a crowd, this time with a pistol. (Felix Schnell. 2012. Räume des Schreckens. Gewalt und Gruppenmilitanz in der Ukraine 1905-1933.)

Thus we should not be surprised at the following incident: Beginning the march home in the Indus valley, Alexander fought all the tribes that would not submit. In one city, the citadel held out. Growing impatient with the siege, Alexander himself mounted one of the ladders, fending off a shower of missiles from above with his shield. He reached the top with three others when the ladders broke. His friends called Alexander to jump down; instead he jumped into the fortress. His tiny group fought ferociously, but were almost overwhelmed in the midst of the enemy by the time the Macedonians had frantically driven pegs into the earthen wall to make the ascent. One companion was dead; Alexander had been pierced by an arrow in the chest and fainted from loss of blood. His infuriated troops killed everyone in the place down to the women and children.  Alexander was always heedless of himself in battle, but now one wonders if he cared whether he lived or died. His soldiers had betrayed him; if they wouldn’t follow him now, they would see!  There must have been some satisfaction as his litter passed by boat along the camp shore, the army shouting as he raised a hand to show he was still alive.

After a long and devastating march, the following year they were back in Mesopotamia. ** 

** The big obstacle was the Gedrosian desert, the dryest part of Iran. Alexander could have come back the way he had gone out, looping across the northern, more fertile edge of the Iranian plateau; but Alexander sent a subordinate with part of his troops that way-- he wanted to try something new, maybe something especially dangerous. Usually careful of logistics, he planned for his admiral Nearchus to sail parallel to his route along the coast of the Indian ocean, to supply him with food and water. It was a rare miscalculation: they did not know the monsoon winds blew the wrong direction that time of year, and Nearchus’ fleet was stuck in port while Alexander’s 150,000 were marching west. Three-quarters of them died in the desert. It was the worst loss of Alexander’s career, more men than all his battles put together. It was like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Then came a second mutiny. He called an assembly of his Macedonian veterans, by now down to a fraction of his troops. He formally discharged those who were too old or wounded for further action, sending them home with ample rewards. The army’s mood was sullen. The cry went up: Discharge us all! And some yelled taunting insults about the Asian gods in whose name he would fight his further conquests. Alexander leaped down from the platform and pointed out the ringleaders to his guards, to seize them and put them to death.  In the silence that followed, Alexander remounted the platform and bitterly discharged the whole army. From now on Persian nobles would fill the high posts; names of Macedonian regiments would be transferred to the new army. For three days the Macedonian soldiers lingered, uncertain what to do; finally they laid down their weapons and begged to be admitted into Alexander’s presence. What followed was a tearful reconciliation. The quarrel was patched up, in the usual ritual, by massive drunken feasting.

Partying to Death

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. When he died, Alexander went into a veritable potlatch of grief; he had the battlements of nearby cities pulled down, and massacred the entire population of a nearby tribe who had been causing trouble; the physician who failed to cure his friend was crucified. Hephaestion was more than a friend; he was his fellow Persianizer, the one who like himself wore Persian robes, the one who had fought the leader of the pro-Greek faction after the murder of Cleitus. Now Alexander was alone, the Persian King of Kings, without a friend. 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.

Copy of a statue of Alexander regarded as good likeness

Are we surprised at how he looks? The statue made by his favorite sculptor is certainly not of a youth; probably from the last years of his life when he was back from campaigning. He stood out from his bearded contemporaries because he kept himself clean-shaven. Alexander was short but stocky, with something twisted looking in his face and neck. He was thirty-two years old when he died. Is this dying young? Think of him as an aging athlete, engaged in the roughest action for 16 years; about the time professional athletes start to retire, beat up from injuries. Alexander had been wounded in almost every battle, sometimes severely; wounded in the leg, bludgeoned in the head and neck, arrows that shattered bones and had to be painfully removed from shoulder, thigh and chest. It accumulates; and there were no steroids to prolong an athletic career.

Alexander did not die of disappointment, or for want of places yet to conquer. His fatal drinking binge took place days before another expedition was to be launched, the conquest of Arabia, preliminary to Carthage and the western Mediterranean. But the atmosphere was different. The court was swarming with priests and soothsayers, making all manner of sacrifices and oracles for the upcoming expedition. Alexander was conventionally religious for his time-- i.e. giving ample display of rituals before and after battle, no doubt enjoying the Durkheimian center of attention. But there is no indication he ever let the oracles tell him what to do. Flashback one last time, to Alexander in Greece, 21 years old, getting ready for his Persian expedition. Following good form, he visits the oracle of Delphi. But the oracle is closed; it is not a propitious day. Alexander forcefully drags the priestess to her shrine. “My son, you are invincible,” she protests. It is all he wants to hear.

Did Alexander Really Achieve Anything?

He took over the Persian Empire. He did not change its structure or even its extent. The mutiny in India happened when his army passed the Persian frontier; it was just too far, by everyone’s sense of what the Empire could hold. I take this to mean a logistics sense. There is a silly conjecture that if Alexander had not died, he would have conquered Carthage and Rome, and created a true world empire. This is hero-rhetoric of historians. As if anyone had the administrative capacity at the time: Italy had still not gone through the elimination contest that would have made it the kind of target Persia had become. Even 500 years later, when the Romans shifted from a thin tributary overlordship to a degree of bureaucratic penetration, they never could get beyond the western edge of Iran.

Could anyone else have done as much as Alexander did? Very likely. His father Philip was all set to do it; and he probably could have carried it out, if he didn’t get killed at some other drinking party along the way. They used the same army, the same tactics, the same diplomacy of rule. Perhaps the only difference was that Alexander was somewhat better, after all, at holding his liquor at drinking parties.

The main structural innovation that Alexander attempted was to promote mutual assimilation between Greeks and Persians. * The god-king protocol was what his Greeks objected to; but it was a necessary form of rule in the tributary overlord structure of the Persian Empire, depending on impressiveness and ceremonial obeisance that left local potentates in place. Greek city-state democracy (and even the version of egalitarian equals inside the Macedonian aristocracy) was structurally incompatible with the vertical hierarchy of an oriental empire. What Alexander’s innovation came down to specifically was an academy to train Persian noble youths, by making them, in effect, into Persian-speaking Macedonian officers.  This is what the second mutiny was about. He couldn’t integrate the Empire; the best he could try was integrate the office corps. Even this didn’t take.

* Alexander was not so “Greek” as Greek-centered historians have assumed. Certainly he was not a panhellenic anti-Persian. When he left Macedon, he gave away all his property, acting like he expected never to come home. His heroes were the Persian empire-builders, Cyrus and Darius I, even though the latter invaded Greece. In fact, Macedon became a client state of Persia at the time. Macedon was a buffer zone between two culture areas, and such locations can go either way.

The biggest consequence of the Macedonian conquest was creating a zone on the eastern and southern edges of the Mediterranean in which the dominant language and culture were Greek; and thus a zone where travel was facilitated, and social movements could spread. The main results were two: when the Romans started being drawn into Greek coalition-wars, starting with Epirus (on the Adriatic side of Greece-- near present-day Albania, and the place where Alexander’s mother came from), they were drawn onwards until they were interfering in the alliance system of the Greek-speaking states, all the way around to Syria and Egypt. And when Rome interfered, it never withdrew. 

The second result can be seen in where Christianity spread: exactly these Greek-speaking places. Paul the great missionary to the Gentiles is a native of Tarsus in Asia Minor, near where Alexander fought the battle of Issus. The letters that make up the New Testament (itself written in Greek) are almost entirely to Christian congregations in Asia Minor and Greece. The subsequent great centers of the church, and of the monastic movements, were Greek-speaking Antioch and Alexandria. 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.

Why did Alexander Sleep Well, but Napoleon Never Slept?

The preceding blog observed that Napoleon was so energized that he worked 20 hours a day, and on campaign never slept for more than 15 minutes at a time. Alexander was not at all like this. Alexander bragged that he never slept better than the night before a battle; that Parmenio had to shake him three times to wake him up before they went out to fight at Gaugamela. This is entirely plausible. Alexander was much more physical than Napoleon, a muscle man who tired himself out with vigorous exercise.

They both had high emotional energy, pumped up with confidence and pumping up others around them. But they did it by different means. Napoleon got his energy in center-of-the-network rounds of meetings, taking care of all the many branches of administration and moving around the pieces that had to assemble for battle. Things were simpler in Alexander’s day; administration was a thin ceremonial hierarchy; battle preparations were simple, and he did not so much direct his forces as launch the attack and create a bolt of energy that would stream behind him into the heart of the enemy army.

Who was the greater general? Consider this a way of seeing how much had changed from ancient organizational structures to incipient modern ones. If we imagine Napoleon going up against Alexander, it would have to be either in one time or the other. 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.

Bottom line: Heroic leaders, if we unpack the designation of what we are talking about, have to be energy stars. They are persons in the center of gatherings, where they recycle emotions into group action. It can be done in different ways. Napoleon did it mainly by turning enthusiasm into speed; Alexander by spreading a reputation mixed of domineering, sudden anger, and magnanimous generosity.

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. As Durkheim explained, morality, as well as emotional energy, are products of social morphology.


 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon

Arrian.  History of Alexander.
Plutarch. Life of Alexander.
Xenophon.  Anabasis.
Old Testament Bible. Book of Esther; Book of Daniel.
J. B. Bury.  1951.  A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great.  chapters XVI- XVII.
Donald W. Engels. 1978. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army.
Peter Green. 1970. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC.
R. Ghirshman. 1954.  Iran: From the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest.
Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones. 1978. Atlas of World Population History.  
H.W. Parke. 1933. Greek Mercenary Soldiers.
Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. 1983. Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World.
Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies. chapter 3.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.