This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.
By every measure of generalship, Alexander III of Macedon excelled all other commanders, before and after; the bar by which all are measured. In battle or in siege, he was ever victorious; leading his Army in four very great battles and as many great sieges (and a myriad of lesser engagements. He died at the young age of 32; having conquered the greatest empire to date, the greatest ever established by a single man; and second only to the that of the Mongols in extent.
The Macedonian Empire, built by Alexander in less than 13 years.
As a commander, Alexander is striking in combining both personal heroism with great tactical skill. For personal courage and prowess he has no superior among the Great Captains. As a warrior, he emulated his hero Achilles (of Trojan War fame), and embodied the ultimate virtues of a Greek fighting man. He habitually led from the front, leading his elite cavalry “Companions” in what usually proved the decisive charge of each of his battles; a fact which makes the control he exercised in battle over his army all the more impressive.
As a tactician he built upon the lessons of Epaminondas of Thebes and his own great father, Philip II; and elevated tactics to a new level. His army, comprised of all arms (cavalry and foot, light and heavy) employed combined arms and specialist in a way never previously seen; and not surpassed till the modern age. Each of his battles were tactical masterpieces in their own right; any one of which would have crowned the career of a lesser commander.
Strategically, his campaigns were masterfully conducted. He made look easy what others found impossible. Later would-be conquerors, from Crassus to Julian the Apostate attempted (and failed) to repeat his achievements. Of his grasp of the “Operational Art”, no less an expert than Napoleon concluded: he “calculated with depth, executed with audacity, conducted with wisdom”. A master of logistics (the measure of a professional), in 10 short years he crossed the ancient world, leading an army of soldiers, servitors and camp followers across some of the world’s least hospitable terrain, which ranged from some of the most brutal deserts to the highest peaks in the world. He conquered an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River in India; from the Danube River to the upper-reaches of the Nile. Only once, in Gedrousia, did his army run short on supplies; and that only because plans to supply his forces by sea came awry.
While marching a through the fearsome Gedrosian desert, the Macedonian army was punished by heat, sandstorms, flash floods, and lack of food and (most importantly) water. When scouts found a tiny spring, they brought a helmet full of water to the king. Alexander took the helmet and dumped the contents on the ground; demonstrating to all his determination to share their suffering.
More than any other Great Captain of War, he was an inspirational and highly charismatic figure. Even his Persian and central Asian enemies, once defeated, admired and joined him as faithful subjects (in part placated by his marriages to Stateira, the daughter of his former foe, Darius III; and to Roxane, daughter of the Bactrian chieftain, Oxyartes). His magnetism was a powerful tool, inspiring fierce devotion among the hard fighting men whom he commanded. They followed him across the known world, through scorching deserts and over the highest mountains in the world (the Hindu Kush). In India they found themselves in an alien land, facing in battle monstrous beasts the like of which men of the west had never seen before (elephants). Yet they never lost confidence in their young king-and-commander; and he led them to his greatest tactical masterpiece at the Hydaspes River against King Porus. Finally, exhausted, they refused to follow him further east; his only defeat.
Exhausted after 10 long years of hard campaigning (in which he sustained several near-fatal wounds), he succumbed to a fever in Babylon in 323 BC. Had he lived longer he might well have conquered both Carthage and Rome; preempting the heyday of those two great powers, Rome at the time only just beginning to assert itself as a military power. His plans, read after his death to the assembled Macedonian army, called for just such a venture. However, without their great commander to lead them, the Macedonians balked at such a daunting prospect.
Alexander landing in Asia, preparing to win “by the spear” his empire.
For more, see Granicus, Alexander’s Most Perilous Battle