Alexander the Great and His Army

More is written about peace than any other word in our language. There isn’t another word in today’s world that represents so much to so very many. It is not just wanted or desired, it is prayed for as few, if any, other things are. Peace, here on the threshold of the 21st century, the beginning of the Third Millennium, is almost a religion in itself. We wage war to gain peace. This does not, to us, detract from victory in any way for that is the successful culmination of war. We think past victory to peace.

This is what we fought for – peace! Now we will change our conditioning about peace as the supreme objective of war as we consider, 2300 years in the past, the wars of Alexander the Great. The reason for this change is that Alexander had an entirely different objective for waging war. Alexander dedicated himself to glory, glory gained on the field of battle. Because he was King of Macedon, an absolute monarch, the entire country was his instrument to glory, Alexander and Macedon were one. Implicit in this dedication to lory is the necessity that war is a constant, there is always a present war. The absence of war eliminates the potential for gaining glory. Unless we consider the wars of Alexander in this way, we miss his raison’ d’etre. 1 Alexander was surly one of fortune’s favorites, a winner in the lottery of life. Son of a very successful soldier, politician and King, Philip II of Macedon, he inherited a kingdom when he was but 20 years old. The bonus in his inheritance was the Macedonian Army, an instrument of war that was unparalleled for that age.

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It was equipped, trained, blooded and ready to march. To match this proven marvel of war, Alexander brought true genius for both strategy and tactics plus the will to use everything, the army wedded to his incomparable gifts, to make war to gain glory. He must achieve more than Achilles, the Homeric champion of the Trojan Wars. He must achieve more than the demigods Heracles and Dionysus. He must go, as a conqueror, where no Greek had ever gone before. 2 Alexander was blessed with a clear vision of what he wished to do.

As the true son of Philip, Alexander was schooled in war by a master of the art. Philip, as thorough in devising a rounded education as he was in planning a military campaign, engaged Aristotle to be the main teacher for Alexander and his highly ranked companions. Arguably the greatest intellect of the age, Aristotle gave Alexander the benefit of his wide range of knowledge, his curiosity and his method of scientific investigation. He also gave him Homer’s Iliad to read.

Whatever Alexander had been searching for in the past, whatever unspoken or unresolved desires and dreams he had were settled in the story of Achilles, his exploits, his wounds, his companions, his victories, and above all, his glory. Whatever needed was supplied to fill out a dream of glory, a dream of surpassing the great hero, a dream of Alexander, the greatest hero. Alexander, suddenly king, quickly solidified his power base in the Macedonian homeland with the allegiance of the Barons and the Army.

Then, in some lightening like moves that were a portent of the future, he intimidated Thebes and Athens plus the rest of the Hellenic League, leaving only the ever recalcitrant Sparta (not a member of the League), to approve him as Hegemon of the League, duplicating Philip’s position. The unmatched Macedonian Army had already been put in motion by Philip. His goal was to attack Persia based on the superficial reason of the need to redeem Greek honor that had suffered defeat in the Persian Wars, the most recent one being 150 years in the past.

Of course, the true reason was to conquer lands in Asia Minor, collect booty and enrich the Macedonian Royal House, Barons and whoever among the rank and file fortunate enough to survive the campaign. A 10,000 man expeditionary force, under the able Parmenio, one of Philip’s most experienced combat commanders, was operating beyond the Hellaspont when Philip was assassinated. Parmenio confirmed his allegiance to Alexander giving him complete control of the entire army. Alexander, now in control of the Army, but not the entire country, set about to use it.

Leaving the expeditionary force to continue operations in Asia Minor, he exhibited his strategic grasp of the existing situation, plus his plan that would secure his base and the upcountry provinces of Macedon. His mother gave him a binding tie to the royal house of Epirus, his neighbor to the west. His lightening move through Greece had quieted the area generally to his south and part of the east (Thessaly). To his north he must march to bind those barons to him now that Philip was dead and, every bit as important, to subdue rebelling provinces farther to the north up to the River Danube.

Alexander, King of Macedon, marched north to certain battle. He was now the unquestioned commander of the Army. As for the Army, Alexander had been known to all as Royal Prince, had campaigned with Philip in the recent past, having led the decisive charge of the Companion Cavalry at the victory at Chaeronea in 338 and in 340, as acting regent, led elements of the Army to campaign on the frontier of Eastern Macedon and founded Alexandropolis, his first namesake city. So the Army thought it knew Alexander quite well.

Future campaigns would prove to the Army that, where Alexander was concerned, they had much more to learn than they already knew. Alexander, on the other hand, knew the Army better than the Army knew itself. Future campaigns would prove to the Army that it could march, fight, innovate and win as it never, even its wildest dreams, imagined. Philip’s army now became Alexander’s army, it was in a class all by itself. It had been Philip’s greatest achievement. It was different from other armies in a number of ways, at least seven, and each difference was an improvement by itself.

The sum of the improvements made the army something special. 3 First of all, it was a standing army, what we call a professional army in today’s world. There were no harvests or plantings to disrupt the routines of the soldiers. There was virtually no Macedonian Navy to vie for funds. The army was preeminent as the prime expenditure of the State and knew it. The soldiers that made up the army (second improvement) were paid. All were subjects of the King so it was a national army, drawing from the many landed Barons who were under allegiance to the King.

This provided a much larger manpower base than any Greek city state, as an example, could begin to match. The army was always in being, not scattered doing something else. This created an elan’ that surpassed other armies by a considerable degree. Of course, training was constant (third improvement). The phalanx, the cavalry, the hypaspists, the bridge train, the siege train, each arm of the service honed their skills as only a standing army could. Moreover, the various arms (phalanx, cavalry) trained together to coordinate their objectives.

The hypaspists, a sort of light infantry, (as opposed to the heavy infantry of the phalanx) were troops with special tactics to exploit battlefield opportunities by very rapid, controlled movement. It appears that no other army of the time had any units that had the same capabilities. The Fourth Improvement was the cavalry. 4 This was the main shock unit of the army but by no means, the only one. Mounted on horses bred in Macedon on the lowland pastures, the Companion Cavalry was the best such unit in the world.

The horses were not large by our present standards, but neither were the riders of that day. There were no stirrups (still over 600 years in the future) and the saddle was rudimentary, but a horse and rider loom over a foot soldier and a squadron of cavalrymen moving “in mass” at a fast pace, even more so at a gallop, is an asset any general will prize above everything in his arsenal. The training of the Companion Cavalry created cohesive units, immediately responding to commands on the field of battle, disciplined troopers who would drive home a charge and reform, ready for another.

In other Greek armies the phalanx was the main shock unit, in Alexander’s army it was the Companion Cavalry. This, incidentally, did not preclude the use of the phalanx in a shock capacity. It enhanced the value of both the cavalry and the phalanx. Another major improvement of the army was the extended use of siege weapons (the Fifth Improvement). Siege weapons5 were well known long before Alexander. Philip and Alexander were the first commanders to take advantage of the siege weapon, on a scale that was smaller and more mobile, as part of the order of battle in the field, not only in a siege.

The Macedonians used small versions of catapults6 firing both large arrows (that could be aimed at a single man) or stones that would have the potential of killing or wounding a number of men with a single shot. At times the catapults threw bags of stones which came apart in the process and allowed the stones to act like shrapnel7 (the name is taken from Lt. Henry Shrapnel R. A. of the British Army who invented the hollow shell containing lead bullets, the shrapnel, in 1784 AD). Instances of hornets nests and poisonous snakes are recorded which if not ingenious is at least adventuresome.

The use of catapults on the field of battle by Alexander was akin to what is called assault artillery in the armies of the late 2Oth Century. Although not the final improvement, this is the sixth, leadership was in a class by itself. The Macedonian Army “was the first scientifically organized military force in history”8 Philip’s leadership was so good that only an Alexander could out perform him. In the 20 years or so that Philip molded and gave battle with the Macedonian Army before his assassination, it became his army in spite of the national flavor of the troops.

Alexander grew up in and around the Army, always displayed unimpeachable bravery, and as acting commander of a section of the Army conquered his first city at the age of 16. 9 No other army in history has had better leadership than did the Army of Macedon under Philip and Alexander. His conquests strain our frame of reference even today when we can view events in real time on the far side of the earth. Alexander was the benefactor of having the colossal luck to be born as a true son of Philip. The Seventh Improvement was the culmination of the other six.

The tactics the army employed to be victorious. Tactics is based, as we might suspect on a Greek word “taktika”. It means the art of disposing and maneuvering forces in combat. It is an art and most certainly the preeminent of all because the lives of men are put at risk in its practice. There can be no greater responsibility. Unfortunately for mankind, we seem to be addicted to the practice and mesmerized by action produced so the losses are turned into mindless numbers, sometimes men, sometimes kilometers, that allow the process to continue because they fail to communicate the true horror.

Tactics is a bloody business but if we are “in it” so to speak, it is better to control, better to dictate, pick, choose and win. On the field of battle Alexander had no peer. The simple addition of the previous six improvements amounted to a tremendous advantage. Since these improvements come together in tactics, the actual use of the Army, there is a synergy developed where the use of all facets in battle created something much more than the sum of their parts. Since tactics is an art this is entirely possible and evident in the results. Alexander had two shock elements to his army, the Companion Cavalry and the Phalanx.

Inside each of these arms were nuances of use that added together, gave him options not only unavailable to his opponents but unknown to them. It was in the coordinated use of the components of the army that the greatest advances were accomplished. This, in today’s military terminology, is called combined arms. It involves the various arms working within a plan that uses each of them to support and enhance the other. It may be to feign a retreat by the hypaspists as at Chaeronea in 338 to draw the Athenians to charge forward from their battle line to take advantage of a perceived opportunity.

The retreat is only a ruse to create an opening between the charging Athenians and their adjoining allies. The Companion Cavalry has been waiting for this opening, expecting it, to charge through the Alliance lines and turn on their forces from the rear. Alexander led the charge, the Alliance was decisively defeated leaving Macedon as undisputed military power in Greece. The use of catapults in the field is evidenced in one of Alexander’s early battles in the Northern Marches of Macedon. At Pelion, Alexander, in a rare loss of the initiative had to extract his army from a siege position around the town and cross river to a defensive position in the foothills. Surrounded, Alexander lulled the barbarian army into watching his phalanx and cavalry maneuver on the plain outside of the city, then in a typical lightening move, he forced a crossing of the river creating a defensive bridgehead.

He then set up some of his siege artillery to fire back across the river, over the heads of his own troops to cover their rear with a curtain of missiles as they crossed the river after disengaging with the enemy. This is the first reported use of siege artillery in the field as an assault weapon (in spite of the fact that it was used defensively). 1 Another aspect of Macedonian tactics that confounded their opponents was, as mentioned briefly above, the potential dual shock capacity. The Greek city-state battle tactic was based on the shock of the phalanx. A case in point being the greater depth of the Theben phalanx as compared to the Macedonian phalanx. Thebes simply committed more manpower to their phalanx because it was their best chance for victory. Not so Macedon where, as again noted above, the Companion Cavalry was the prime shock arm.

However the phalanx, as designed by Philip and used so masterfully by Alexander, was an obvious shock weapon. This produced a dilemma for the enemy as the phalanx sometimes by advancing in an oblique formation, called refusing the flank because the advancing ranks would not meet a straight enemy line at the same time, would cause the defenders to shift to meet the first impact point, thinning the adjoining positions and opening up attack opportunities for the Macedonians. 12 At Gaugamela, Alexander starts the battle using an oblique formation with the left refused.

His phalanx edges diagonally to the right, moving off the area Darius has cleared to help his own battle plan. The Persian commander in front of the phalanx moves to intercept and flank the phalanx, this stretches his defensive line, immediately noted by Alexander who smashes into the weak spot with the Companion Cavalry, crumbling the Persian Center. Here the phalanx maneuvered and pulled substantial enemy forces with it. As these forces moved to continue to oppose the phalanx, the Persian commander did not use reinforcements to shore up his stretching (thinning) line and lost the battle. 3 It is this ability to gain victory from using these many different components of the army that made it so unique and indomitable. Great generals, given the same tasks to perform, will develop the same principles to govern their actions. These principles are constants, always in mind, somewhat like building blocks because there is an order of time to them.

Two hundred years before Alexander a great thinker and general in far off China wrote extensively on war and how to make waging war successful. His name was Sun Tzu. 14 Most of his ideas read like Alexander’s outline of what he must do to be victorious over the Persian Empire. It is all but certain that Alexander had no idea of Sun Tzu’s writings, but Alexander’s actions confirm the premise that great generals come up with the same principles. Alexander first made an estimate of the situation, then secured his base and cleared his flanks. He sized the initiative in virtually all his operations and demonstrated a seemingly endless flexibility in his battles. These principles are those of Sun Tzu, as well, and subscribed to or practiced on the field of battle by all the great captains who follow Alexander down through the centuries.

If there is one thing that stands out in the generalship of Alexander, it is the complex process that must take place in his mind to give him the initiative. He seems to have an innate feel for what he must do so his actions are the dictating moves of the skirmishes and battles to come. He continually operates from the offensive side because “the initiative is more readily gained by offensive than defensive action”. 15 He is a master of the initiative. Time after time Alexander destroys or thwarts enemy’s plan thus taking the initiative because, with destruction of his plan, the enemy is without a plan of his own and must react to your plan.

For the enemy, the options left are discouraging, to fight the battle on your terms, to disengage and retreat, if that is possible, or surrender. Of the three major battles with the Persian Empire, Alexander seized the initiative each time. At Granicus and Issus, the Persians chose to defend a line using a river as a natural obstacle. In each case, although given the offensive role, he attacked in such a manner that the defenders had to make substantial adjustments in their dispositions so they were changing on the battlefield.

Alexander was very aware of the type of soldier that made up the bulk of the vast Persian Army, who lacked flexibility, individual initiative, esprit de corps and training. His quick attacks at Granicus on the river defenses before the Persian infantry got into position ruined the Persian battle plan. He gained the initiative and broke the line at the river. The Persians went into retreat, better a rout, except for the Greek mercenaries who began an orderly withdrawal, also expected by Alexander.

The Macedonian infantry surrounds the Greet mercenaries on a low hillock and, on Alexander’s specific orders, cuts them to pieces, refusing their surrender offer, and enslaving the survivors. He wishes to make a point to all the remaining Greek mercenaries in the employ of the Persian King of Kings, that he considers them traitors and if they are wise enough to take heed of the Gracious lesson they will opt to leave Persian employ. Alexander was well aware, prior to any action against the Persians, that Greek mercenaries in their employ were by far and away their best soldiers.

As an integral part of the control of the initiative is the flexibility of the Macedonian army. When Alexander hurls his Companion Cavalry against the flower of the Persian cavalry commended by the noble Spithridates, his hypaspists were joined in the assault, an attack no phalanx, even Alexander’s could do, and a solid instance of a combined arms use plus another example of the unique qualities of the hypaspists. At Issus, the next confrontation of the two adversaries, the Persians were in a different frame of mind and far better prepared.

By an excellent strategic movement, Darius, now in personal command of his army, got behind Alexander, cutting his communications. This, as at Pelion, was one of the very fewtimes that we know of when Alexander was at a disadvantage due tohis failure to cover all the potential threats to his army. ”Alexander was surprised but not dismayed by the move” 16because he wished to bring the Persian forces to battle. He also had some comfort from the particular position Darius choose which was a narrow part of the plain between the mountains and the sea.

This pinched his troops to a front that did not take advantage of his numerical superiority. Also Alexander notes that Darius has fortified with stockades some of the easier crossing places. To Alexander this is an insight to the state of Darius’ thinking, basically a defensive one, and in view of his large numbers, a comment on the morale and fighting ability of the Persian army. Because the Persians have had easily enough time to set up their defenses and position their troops, the Greek mercenaries, now replenished since Granicus, are in the center of the Persian line.

Alexander leading the Companion Cavalry, and following light troops who are clearing the foothills, outflanks the Persian left just as the Macedonian phalanx smashes into the Persian center. The Companion Cavalry comes into the rear of the Persian Center, particularly into the Greek mercenaries who have checked the Macedonian phalanx. Darius sees the personal danger to himself and flees the field, the Persians follow and disengage as best they can. To successfully disengage from an enemy force in a hand- to-hand battle required far more leadership and discipline than the Persians possessed, excepting only the Greek mercenaries.

The Persian retreat left their entire camp open to the Macedonians. The camp was taken intact, not plundered, and included considerable treasure plus the immediate family of Darius, quite an unexpected prize. The lesson of Issus is the value of a holding battle. When the Macedonian phalanx crossed the River Pinarus against the Persian center, it held that center fixed because both sides were locked in combat. This was a meeting of the Persian shock troops with the Macedonian phalanx shock troops – but not the only, or 16 even prime, shock element of Alexander’s army.

Alexander was flanking the Persian left with the Companions, thus providing for the rear attack on the Persian center by the single most devastating military force of the age. The ability of the phalanx to hold or fix the major part of the enemy’s hitting power was, it appears, the desired tactic for Alexander. This type of situation, in most cases, freed him from personal command of the center and allowed him to utilize the mobile elements of the army with such telling results. He wasn’t always with the Companions but the circumstances of the battles in most cases, made him most effective (victorious) at the head of the Companions.

Gaugamela was discussed above. However, there is another aspect of the battle. Because of the size of the Persian army it overlapped the Macedonian army on both flanks. Alexander formed his army in a oblong circle to provide a 360 degree defense. As he moved his army to contact with the waiting Persians, he moved at an oblique to the Persian front. The Persians didn’t move to adjust to his move prior to contact. In the course of the battle, and after Alexander charges through the Persian lines with the Companions, an opening develops in the Macedonian phalanx. Persian cavalry gallops through and begins to plunder the Macedonian baggage train.

These Persians are attacked by Macedonian reserves and routed from their plundering. This may be the first time that tactical reserves were used in battle. It is another instance of Alexander’s seemingly endless capacity to respond to new challenges on the field of battle. As we know, Gaugamela was the decisive battle of the war against Persia. Alexander’s victory was complete except for fragmentary resistance evidenced in the eastern satrapies. We have seen now that Alexander was successful in major battles against the Persians and cited one instance of a minor battle at Pelion.

There were dozens of minor battles just as there were many sieges (20 are recorded17), not to mention the guerrilla warfare that was seemingly constant. “Alexander is distinguished from all other great generals in that he was uniformly successful in every type of war – it is because his generalship was put to so universal a test that he takes his place at the head of the great captains”. 18 It was battle that allowed Alexander to keep tasting that ambrosia of immortality, glory. He was hopelessly addicted to it. He was fulfilling his dream.

Although he had been victorious in all his campaigns through the battle of Gaugamela, as he chased the beaten Darius into the eastern satrapies of Persia, Alexander, by all accounts became even more adept at the art of war. “It is in his campaigns in Bactria and Sogdiana that Alexander’s generalship reaches its zenith, and that he was able to subdue these two satrapies in a little over two years is a feat of arms seldom rivaled. “19 In these mountains and deserts there were no great battles, he was faced with a peoples war, a war of mounted guerrillas. Unfortunately we are told little of the tactical changes he introduced.

For certain we know that he introduced mounted javelin- men and lightened some of the equipment of the phalanx. Arrian reports these things to us. We must assume that he expanded his numbers of light armed troops and increased the number of troops of all kinds that were mounted. 20 Alexander had always been a commander who could move his troops with unheard-of speed for those times. 21 We need only recall his march to Thebes and Athens by way of Thessaly in the days immediately following Philip’s murder. He moved so rapidly that the city-states were unprepared to really stand up to him, encamped before the walls of their cities. Should there be an ingredient which affirms his genius, it is the startling rapidity with which he always acted: no situation caused him to pause; all difficulties were immediately stormed; though risks were immense, to him success seemed foreordained. “22 The hold Alexander had over his troops defies comparison. It had to be far more than booty. The promise of riches had been fulfilled with the treasury of Persia at Babylon and the “bottom of the barrel” at Persepolis, over 1000 miles to the rear of the army. The soldiers had seen more, even before India, than anyone in the army could have predicted back in Macedon.

More than an average soldiers lifetime of fighting and marching had been gained in seven years. There seemed to be no end to it, another skirmish at a mountain pass, another siege of a walled city, another march over a salt desert, another night bivouacked in snow or heat, in a sandstorm, in a swamp, without water, short on food, worn out shoes, rotted clothing, dead comrades but no goal. The army of Alexander went on like this at least three years. They were in Sogdiana in 327 and back to Babylon in 324. There was a love for Alexander that kept the army loyal to his dream when all of the theirs had been fulfilled or lost.

Living his dream with him carried them into and through the Hindu Kush into India and to the critical confrontation. As noted above Alexander did not pause at any obstacle. Early in the first campaign, when the Thessalonians did not give his requests a quick answer, he had his engineers begin cutting steps on a mountain side to allow his army to continue on its journey. The Thessolians acquiesced to his requests when they realized their mountain pass would not only soon be outflanked but of less value in the future with a competing trail over the mountain. Alexander became the Hegemon of Thessaly just as Philip had been.

On the River Danube, the rebellious provincials crossed well ahead of Alexander and kept all the boats in the area on their side of this formidable stream. Alexander used the leather tents stuffed with straw and sewn tight to augment the few boats he could find to cross the Danube in one night. When he attacked the next morning, coming out of a man high grain field, the battle was all but over due to his demoralizing surprise. Canny commander that he was, he did not chase the routed enemy into the vast grasslands that spread out to the north of the river where he might have dissipated his force.

He knew he still had enemies to the south between the Danube and his base in Macedon. In Babylon after Gaugamela and the capture of the main seat of Persian government and treasure, Alexander found time to campaign personally against the Uxians, a mountain clan who augmented their subsistence by charging a toll to anyone wishing to use their mountain pass. Alexander, in a night march over a little known “hill track”23 caught them in their sleep and drove them into a fixed line of troops under Craterus. What was left of this discouraged group paid tribute to Alexander from that day forward.

After the grueling march across the Gedrosian Desert and after reaching Ecbatana to recouperate in the cool highlands of the Iranian Plateau, Alexander, still grieving from the dead Hephaestian, found time to campaign against the Cossaeans, a hill tribe to the southeast of Ecbatana. They, too, collected tribute from anyone crossing their lands. Alexander exterminated the Cossaeans in five weeks. 24 Possibly, by now, this little excursion into the badlands to perform some extermination exercises was Alexander’s favorite form of relaxation.

A noted military historian of this day and age refers to Alexander as the ideal of heroic leadership. 25 There are many examples of this heroism in his brilliant career. The eight wounds that are reported are solid support for his heroic style. He received26 “four slight, three serious, one nearly killed him” . 27 “He had been struck by almost every weapon available to an enemy: sword, lance, arrow, dart and catapult missile. ” He chided the mutineers at Opis that he was covered with the scars of old wounds. The other side of Alexander’s heroic leadership was his careful planning for the supply of his army.

The Macedonians did not pillage the Persian Empire in the sense that it was stripped bare in the manner of the typical conqueror at that time. Alexander came to stay and rule the Persian Empire, ruining the economy and enslaving the people would not give him an empire to continue to grow, as he certainly intended it to do. At the same time, the careful supply of the army, even in deserts and mountains was managed by Alexander’s staff. This care on the part of their commander was to the men in the ranks another reason to love Alexander to the extreme that we see during the campaign.

Granted Philip had changed the amount of comestibles carried by the average soldier, possibly to as much as a 30 day supply. These are factually unknown and we must assume that the Macedonians had supplies waiting for them at any critical point on their marches. This would mean any time their existing food would get below three or four days supply. Please see Appendix D28 for tables showing grain and water requirements. 29 The only thing we know that is absolutely certain about Alexander’s logistics is that they worked admirably.

The logistics of the Macedonian Army are as much of a marvel as the army so well served by them. In the end, along with his incredible victories, Alexander is a great tragedy. Certainly he came closer to achieving his dream than almost anyone else in all of history. The point is that it was his dream, Alexander’s personal dream. The graves of tens of thousands of Macedonian soldiers and hundreds of thousands of their opponents are the untold story of Alexander the Great and all conquerors who must use up other peoples lives to achieve their dream.

The dreams of those men in the ranks and the bereaved wives and children are simply disregarded. Each of them, by their participation in Alexander’s dream helped make it a reality. It was their reality, they lived it, but it was not their dream. 30 For those who died on the mud banks of the Granicus, slipped beneath the salt water surrounding Tyre, fell from a cliff face in the Hindu Kush, choked on a mouthful of sand in the Gedrosian Desert, or pined away all or part of their life waiting for the return of a husband or father, Alexander’s accomplishments were no reward at all. Alexander’s dream was, truly, their nightmare.

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