Former infantry officer and military historian Mark Corby begs to differ with the result of the poll published in last month’s Military Times.
The Alexander Mosaic in the Naples National Archaeological Museum portrays a dashing image of Alexander the Great fighting the Persian King Darius III
Was Alexander of Macedon the greatest commander of all time? His uncle, Alexander of Epirus, certainly did not think so. When, during his campaign in Italy, news of Alexander’s victories in Persia were brought to him, he remarked contemptuously, ‘Tell Alexander, whilst he fights women, I fight men!’. Shortly afterwards, in 331 BC, as if to reiterate the point, Alexander of Epirus was cut down and killed at Pandosia in Lucania.
Three of the young Alexander’s four great victories were achieved against the Persians, a nation that today would be described as a ‘paper tiger’. Since Marathon in490 BC, it had been obvious to the Greek world that whereas the Persians possessed a passable cavalry arm, their infantry was worse than useless and had no stomach for close-quarter battle. This point was well illustrated by the Greek historian and soldier Xenophon in his account of how 10,000 Greek mercenaries penetrated to the very heart of the Persian Empire and then successfully withdrew in the years 401-399 BC. Persia’s only strength was that it was rich and could hire Greek mercenary infantry when required.
Besides inheriting the finest army in the world from his homicidal father Philip II, Alexander also ‘inherited’ Philip’s outstanding Chief-of-Staff, the 64-year-old Parmenion. In Arrian’s eulogistic account of the life of Alexander, Parmenion is caricatured as cautious and indecisive, in contrast to the testosterone-fuelled aggression of Alexander. In fact, Alexander seems to have behaved exactly as one would have expected a young cavalry commander, tinged with homo-erotic impulses, to have behaved. Forever pursuing danger, heedless of risk, yet never in full command and control of the battle. Meanwhile, Parmenion, commanding the infantry phalanx was the true general. It is also hardly creditable that Alexander gave much thought to the enormous logistical problems his army faced. Again, it is more that probable that Parmenion’s wealth of experience was the driving force in dealing with such mundane but vital matters.
A resumé of the relevant battles illustrates these points. At the Granicus, Alexander faced a Persian army augmented by a strong Greek mercenary force. He spent the entire battle commanding the cavalry fighting and subsequent pursuit, a task he should have delegated to a subordinate. Commanders are expected to command,not indulge themselves in gratuitous bloodletting. Parmenion was the true commander, executing the opposed river crossing and destroying the Greek mercenary infantry phalanx.
At Issus, the scene was almost identical. Alexander hurtled off the battlefield to pursue the ‘Great King’ (Darius III), whilst Parmenion led the infantry attack against the last of the Greek mercenaries and ended up in control of the ground, awaiting the return of his adolescent king. At this stage, Persia had no further forces and a thrust to her heartland should have finished her off. However, she was now given a respite of nearly two years, during which Alexander indulged himself in mopping up operations and a sightseeing tour of Egypt. No doubt the real motive for this delay was to allow Darius time to gather yet another army for the climactic battle, Gaugamela.
The Persian duly obliged, producing an enormous polyglot horde, rather than any credible force – a situation echoed, more than two millennia later in 1940, by the Italian Army in North Africa. He had no reliable infantry whatsoever; his fighting force consisting of miscellaneous cavalry and chariots. Perhaps understandably on this occasion, Alexander again indulged himself as the cavalry commander, whilst Parmenion took and held the ground. Yet again, the Great King, whose motto appears to have been ‘run away’, escaped, only to be assassinated by a disgruntled officer, thus bringing to an end one the most feeble defences in history.
Alexander was certainly an heroic figure, and an outstanding cavalry commander. However, his youth, coupled with a predisposition to show off, make it unlikely he had the either the temperament or the dedication to be a great commander. For this myth we can thank the sycophantic words of Arrian – written over 400 years later.
Mark Corby is a former Officer in the Welsh Guards and the presenter of a number of TV documentaries on warfare in the ancient world. He occasionally lectures on Classical warfare at University College London, and is the author of numerous papers on the subject.