Why Alexander the Great is not history’s greatest leader

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Former infantry officer and military historian Mark Corby begs to differ with the result of the poll published in last month’s Military Times.

Was Alexander of Macedon the greatest commander of all time? His uncle, Alexander of Epirus, certainly didn’t think so. When news of Alexander’s victories in Persia were brought to him, whilst he was campaigning in Italy, 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 Alexander’s four great victories were achieved against the Persians, a nation that today we would be described as a ‘paper tiger’. Ever since Marathon in 490 BC, it had been obvious to the Greek world that whilst 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 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 very 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 to have behaved. For ever pursuing danger, heedless of risk, yet never in full command and control of the battle. Meanwhile, Parmenion, commanding the infantry phalanx was the true commander. It is also hardly creditable that Alexander ever gave a 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 battle and subsequent pursuit, a task that he should have delegated to a subordinate. Commanders are expected to command and not indulge themselves in gratuitous bloodletting unless absolutely necessary. Parmenion, of course, 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’, 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 whilst Alexander indulged himself in mopping up operations and a sightseeing tour of Egypt. No doubt the real motive for this delay was to allow the Great King time to gather yet another army for the climactic battle, Gaugamela.
The Great King duly obliged, producing an enormous polyglot horde, more reminiscent of the Italian Army in North Africa in 1940 than any credible force. It had no reliable infantry whatsoever and consisted 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 a heroic figure, and an outstanding cavalry commander. However, his youth, coupled with a predisposition to show off, make it seem unlikely that he had the either the temperament or dedication to be a great commander. For this myth we can thank the sycophantic words of Arrian, writing over 400 years later.

Read our original article about Alexander the Great here


  1. Though much of what you say is true, it is also quite short sighted in perspective. Arrian, writing largely from Ptolemy who was evidently, ever the sycophant and self-aggrandizer, related quite clearly that the battle plan of Guagamela was created and devised by Alexander…not Parmenion. And though Parmenion, as the left-side lynch pin of the Epaminondas Maneuver, was absolutely critical in the success at both Issus and Gaugamela, Alexander was the driving force which drove the Persians from the field in both cases. The 4th and final epic pitched battle was Alexander’s toure de force at the Hydaspes and Parmenion was long gone. The excursion to Siwa was perhaps, as you say, just a waste of time, but the total subjugation of Asia Minor from the Hellespont through Tyre was critical to prevent the possibility of Memnon of Rhodes, the Greek Mercenary General leading the Persian resistance, from taking the battle back to Greece proper. Gaza and then Egypt were also critical to bring to heel, as they could have been used to base Persian troops, already in Egypt, for a hail Mary into Greece as well. And it wasn’t Parmenion that led the army from Europe to India…it was Alexander. For sure, Parmenion’s staid advice was rich with experience and his tactical, strategic, and logistical capabilities were critical to the early part of the campaign. It is just as certain that his presence and familial entrenchment formed roadblocks to Alexander’s further success as the campaigns wore on.

  2. The above comment sums up much of the relevant critical response to this shallow and dismissive overview of Alexander’s status as a battlefield commander. I would however add that Corby’s criticism of Alexander is about what one should expect from establishment western military ‘scholars’ . . . condescending, patronizing, and utterly ignorant of attitudes and philosophies different from their own. It would have been remarkable had Alexander not led from the front, oftentimes at imminent risk of his life, it’s what the leaders of the day did, what they were expected to do. And Corby’s statement that Alexander bounced off on Bucephalus for a jolly lark with the opposing cavalry leaving the real fighting for real men would be embarrassing were it not that it contradicts his belief that the Persians’ only capable arm was their cavalry. Well, maybe it is embarrassing. Corby doesn’t appear to possess so much as the foggiest regarding Alexander’s motives in removing this threat to his army. Such a wanker, that Alexander, for not charging headlong into the enemy’s front . . . Put down the bag of crisps Mark, turn off the History Channel and “Private Ryan” and read a few books . . . Cheers!

  3. Mr. Corby, I agree that you are REAL, short sighted! Alexander still was able to conquer the entire Persian Empire, Northern India, wanted to march to China, and was thinking about marching on Rome when he died at 32! A general at age 18, a king at 20, created the Hellenistic culture! His victories include those against the Persians, the siege of Tyre(thought to be impregnable), defeating the Indians! In none of these did he outnumber his opponents! In all of these he not only improvised and adapted but gained total victory!!! I agree with Mr. Cloud become more like Thucydides and less like Herodotus!And like Mr. Cloud said lead from the front, experience injury, face death, and then stop being the armchair QB/Critic!!!

  4. Let’s be honest no leader is with out advisories and strategists. It seems to me that Alexander knew very well how to value and use them, that makes him a great leader.

    • Had Alexander marched on China, he would have been buried there. At the time, China was going through the Warring States Era (476-221 BC). Seven great kingdoms fought constantly, each of the seven had 300,000 men armies and the most powerful Ch’in and the Chu kingdoms could field million men armies. They were armed with repeating crossbows that fired ten poisoned bolts in 15 seconds. The crossbow did not appear in the west until 1500 year later. The Chinese generals were at least equal if not superior to Alexander. Bai Chi, a general of the Ch’in kingdom, was known to have killed a million to 1.5 million enemy soldiers. In his 40 years career he fought over 70 major campaigns and never lost a battle. The name China originated from the Ch’in kingdom, which defeated the other six kingdoms and created China. Suggest you read “The Book of War” by Long Tang, Algora Publishing.

      • Well, you cannot be too sure because the Chinese despite superior military might at the time failed to subjugate the central asian tribes. Additionally, they lost to Genghis Khan despite outnumbering and having better technology. The Chinese have a record of losing to inferior forces e.g. Mongolians and the Jurchens. Furthermore, ancient records have a reputation, as attested by serious historians, of exaggerating their enemy casualty figure. If you believe that 1.5 million enemy soldiers are killed by your said general, then it is plausible to believe that Genghis Khan and his descendant soldiers killed millions of Song and Jin soldiers. Their generals were not incompetent, but yet lost to the “barbarians”. If you want to imagine Alexander prevailing, you can imagine behaving like the Mongolian generals. Like the Mongolians he could have adopted superior Chinese technology to prevail. The Chinese create many excellent military doctrines, but they also have a history of being subjugated by people who have no record of creating brilliant military doctrines.

  5. alexander lost in India- it has been proven by western and eastern scholars. PORUS took taxla, who sided with Alexander. You have been brainwashed by television, go see the actual proof. China and India were in their golden ages. All your sources are Zero or not proven, this lie is unfolding in the information age. Alexander was full of garbage.

  6. I would tend to agree, Gaugamela and Issus (where he was also initially outgeneraled by Darius) were not much more than repetitions of the battle of Leuctra, which Philip probably learned about during his stay in Thebes and taught Alexander how to employ at Chaeronea (where Alexander commanded the cavalry wing). Hydaspes (when Parmenio was gone) was actually Alexander’s most closely fought battle, and the army revolted not long after. Alexander also demonstrated his lack of understanding of logistics (as the author points out) in the Gedrosian desert. However Jaxartes against the Scythians is actually where Alexander seems to have demonstrated new tactics, and he also proved himself more versatile than Hannibal at the relatively difficult siege of Tyre (though how much of the credit should go to the siege corps that Philip established is debatable).

  7. The only reason Alexander was able to do anything was because of his father’s army and the fact that the two greatest powers of the time had weakened each other. Alexander took Greece with little to no problems due to Greece being in a state of civil war. Persia was also greatly weakened to the point that it was mostly being controlled by Zoroastrianistm. Of course both of these countries had fought each other for hundreds of years making both of them equally weak. The battles that Alexander fought in Persia were narrated by him and those around him. In truth he masked his savagery by making people believe his goal was to unite people. This is evident within two facts. The first of which being that he would massacre anyone that did join his army after attempting to force them (by this I’m referring to his killings when his army was growing through recruiting cities and villages). The second of which being that he burnt great proportions of Persia as well as Greece. He burnt entire cities and desecrated important places such as the greatest library at the time or the tombs of kings. I forget the exact place but I remember reading that he burnt one of the Persian cities just because a girlfriend of his told him to do so. He was a horrible person overall and a barbarian.

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