The most renowned military commanders of the ancient world were perhaps Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. Argument about their relative merits – and those of others – is endless. Such questions have become a staple of online chat among military buffs. But no final resolution will ever be possible, for military ‘genius’ – whatever we mean by that – is always embedded in historical circumstance.
Caesar – regardless of his personal motivation and talent – represented a powerful coalition of social forces pressing against the old senatorial system of government; he was an agent of what Ronald Syme called ‘the Roman Revolution’.
Hannibal – more or less consciously – was an instrument of revanchist, pre-emptive warfare designed to save the Carthaginian trading empire in the Western Mediterranean before the predatory power of Rome became unstoppable.
This does not make the wars they fought ‘just wars’. In particular, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul – with an estimated million dead, a million enslaved, and a thousand settlements torched – was an act of unprovoked aggression. Yet, even here, one feels that Caesar is the personification of a social system – that of Roman military imperialism, which, over many centuries, applauded and rewarded such acts of predatory violence.
Alexander stands apart. Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander gives expression to this. The ageing Ptolemy, who acts as both narrator and commentator, identifies burning personal ambition as the driving force and, at the same time, alerts us to the ultimate futility of it all. For Alexander, heroic leadership in Homeric style, sanctioned by his own presumed divinity, was an end in itself: he was the personification of nothing beyond his own deranged narcissism.
The story of Alexander is a story of military conquest for its own sake. So far from being, as Clausewitz would have it, politics by other means, Alexander’s campaigns were an end in themselves. That is why he ‘orientalised’, adopting Persian practice, and came to loggerheads with many of his own followers. Devoid of any redemptive vision of his own, he simply took over the existing set-up.
What we have is what might be called ‘pure’ military history. Strategy, tactics, and military ‘genius’ without any real anchor in the social order. The Macedonian Army, as it crossed the stage of history in its astonishing whirlwind of achievement, was simply the extension of one man’s will.
In our special this time, Graham Goodlad charts the career of Alexander from Macedonia to the Indus, while Neil Faulkner analyses the Battle of Gaugamela, his greatest victory and an all-time tactical masterpiece.
This is an extract from a special feature on Alexander the Great, from the latest issue of Military History Matters.