Alexander The Not-So-Great

Bust of Alexander the Great in his youth
Bust of Alexander the Great in his youth

Alexander the Great

Alexander III of Macedon is often called Alexander the Great as a result of his victory against the Persian Empire and his vast conquests. Alexander took over more territory than any general before him, and it was not until the Mongols that an empire would surpass the size of Alexander's empire.

This does not make Alexander the greatest general the world has ever seen. While he was certainly one of the bravest generals and one of the greatest commanders the world has ever seen it was because of the situation others put him in, not because of his own generalship.

Bust of Philip II
Bust of Philip II

The Macedonian Army

The Macedonian army was developed by Alexander's father, Philip II. Philip trained the Macedonian army during his wars with Greece. It was also under Philip that most of Greece was pacified and this paved the way for large scale recruitment and financing. Phalanx warfare was an evolution of the hoplite warfare of Greece, and Philip made his soldiers the best in the world.

When Philip II was assassinated Alexander assumed control of his fathers army. He did not have to train or drill his army, he simply inherited it. Most of the world's greatest generals had to train their own troops. They developed some kind of tactics that made them better than everyone else and that is why they became great.

Napoleon had to make his fortune with the worst of the French forces, the Army of Italy. He was given the troops that were meant to be a diversion and used them to overthrow Austrian hegemony in Italy. Scipio Africanus and Hannibal both had to train their armies from recruits and mercenaries for their campaigns. Alexander on the other hand was given a ready made army that would have served just as well with Philip II as their leader.

Darius fleeing the Battle of Gaugamela
Darius fleeing the Battle of Gaugamela

The Opposition

Alexander led the best trained force in the ancient world and his infantry were the heaviest, most disciplined soldiers the world had ever seen. It would not be until they met the Roman Legions that they would meet their match. The forces he went to face on the other hand were more a collection of men than an army.

Darius III led an army composed of soldiers from all over the Persian world. From the shores of Anatolia to Central Asia all the peoples and tribes sent soldiers to fight for Darius. They spoke different languages, and were generally poorly armed and armored. Only the chariot forces of the Persian Empire could be considered great weapons, and even they were useless against Macedonian phalanxes.

Alexander led an elite force supported by well armed and armored Greeks. He personally led the Companion Cavalry, who overwhelmed the Persians in every battle. Alexander had no special tactics, or military designs. In every major battle Alexander won Macedonian phalanxes marched in his center, while he led the Companion Cavalry along the enemies flank. Oftentimes he would simply lead a suicide charge against the enemy general who would then flee the field.

This was Alexander's great strategy, he charged headlong at the enemy and killed them all in combat. When compared to the other great generals of the world it becomes laughable that Alexander is considered a great general, or a tactical master. Alexander was an amazing commander in that he personally led his cavalry and inspired his troops. His soldiers would have followed him on a charge in to Hell, but the only reason he was so successful was that his enemies were so pitiful.

The Macedonian Empire
The Macedonian Empire

The Hellenistic Empire

Alexander the Great conquered one of the largest land empires in history, but that is all he did for his empire. By destroying the Persian Empire and usurping the royal practices of the Persian kings he just took the place of the Persian king. Furthermore Alexander failed to actually pacify most of his empire. For these reasons Alexander should be considered a poor administrator since he barely administered the empire.

After Alexander died his successors had to spend several years actually making Alexander's conquests Macedonian. There were multiple tribes in Anatolia that Alexander simply bypassed and left sovereign in their own land. The Persian satraps had been co-opted by Alexander, but many rebelled upon his death. Most of the eastern territories broke away and created their own kingdom.

Many of Alexander's policies were failures. He had made his generals marry Persian women to integrate the Macedonians and Persians, but once he died many of his successors exiled, banished, or divorced their Persian wives. His attempts to create a unified Macedonian empire ended with his death when he failed to leave an heir to his empire.

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Comments 17 comments

eaglecreek profile image

eaglecreek 4 years ago from Vilonia , Arkansas

I love it. Maybe your a little to harsh on the ole boy but still, I would take Hannibal of Carthage over Alexander the great any day.


cebutouristspot profile image

cebutouristspot 4 years ago from Cebu

A great review of history most talk about general. Thanks.


rahul0324 profile image

rahul0324 4 years ago from Gurgaon, India

A good take on Alexander! I agree with each point of discussion over here...


Angelo52 profile image

Angelo52 4 years ago from Central Florida

Excellent historical article on Alexander. It echos many of the thoughts I have had when there are specials on the History channel about Alexander.


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 4 years ago from Buffalo, New York. Author

Thanks for the comments, glad you enjoyed it.


Richawriter profile image

Richawriter 4 years ago from On Top of the World

Interesting and voted up ata1515.

Very interesting information in this hub. I really had no idea that Alexander was such a poor conqueror and ruler in comparison to the greats like William the Conqueror, Augustus Caesar etc. A good leader, no doubt, but history has painted him in a much more favorable light than he deserved and you have done a good job, highlighting that here with this article.

Thanks for enlightening me!


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 4 years ago from Buffalo, New York. Author

Thanks for the comment and vote up!

History sees Alexander from the present, in that we see Hellenism flower throughout the Middle East and Anatolia after Alexander's conquest, but without his more capable successors it would have been a very short Hellenic period.


Sir Payne profile image

Sir Payne 3 years ago

I hate to be the dissenting voice, but I disagree. Alexander's victory at Gaugamela was the result of arguably the most brilliant tactic used in all the history of warfare. He didn't win because of his army, he won because of his own doing. The army that Alexander inherited was not as great as you say it was, they lost numerous battles before Alexander took the reins. The Macedonian army was not the greatest of the age. Did you know that one of the reasons why the Macedonians didn't continue into India was because they were afraid of the Indian armies? These Indian armies composed hundreds of elephants. The Macedonians knew they would be defeated if they attempted to advance any further, so they refused. My point is, Alexander did not gain his victories from the same tactic, or from his superior soldiers. He gained his victories through his own cunning.


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 3 years ago from Buffalo, New York. Author

Elephants were not as great a weapon as they might seem at first glance. They easily panic, and numerous commanders found ways of breaking elephant charges apart. It was more likely the sub-continent itself that the Macedonians feared. A phalanx cannot operate in uneven terrain so the jungles and mountains of India would have allowed the lighter Indian troops to pick apart the Macedonians.

The cavalry wedge was an interesting tactic, but one manouver does not make a great general. Alexander did not have to face any other great generals, he merely had to defeat armies of rabble, and occasionally sit outside a city till they starved to death.

The Macedonian soldiers were the most disciplined, best equipped, and strategically important soldiers in the classical world. Every ancient power in the western world adopted the phalanx as their main battle line until the development of manipalur formations by the Romans.

Thank you for bringing a dissenting voice with your comments, I hope to see more from you!


Weswiki profile image

Weswiki 3 years ago from USA

I agree that Alexander's military cunning may not have been the best, and certainly not on par with likes of the later Hannibal, but I'd posit that his greatness is more in association with his ushering in of the hellenistic age. Stating that conquering the lands was all he did is....more than a little dismissive. Quite a few wise rulers don't make drastic administrative or cultural changes upon ursurping a throne. Maybe the most damning thing was that Alexander did (or didn't do) was that he didn't name an extact heir, though things seemed to have stablized for a couple years until After the assassination of Perdiccas in 321 BC, Macedonian unity collapsed, and 40 years of war between "The Successors" (Diadochi) ensued before the Hellenistic world settled into four stable power blocks: the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire in the east, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, and Macedon. In the long run, however, the fragmentation of his empire actually helped the process of hellenization along, even if it wasn't intentional. All that said though...I really enjoyed the article!


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 3 years ago from Buffalo, New York. Author

Hello Weswicki,

I agree that Alexander ushered in the Hellenistic Age, but I feel like his name was stamped on Hellenism. The Diodachi did all the grunt work, but it's just easier to see Alexander as the leader of the movement because we are looking backwards in to history.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving such an engaging comment.


Great Armies 3 years ago

Alexander the Great was able to defeat the Persian navy with out using his ships which is a feat in itself. By moving alone the shore he was able to take every city that had a port. When he first gained leadership he moved swiftly against uprisings from cities such as Thebes and Athens. Even if his army was better that the Persians, numbers do matter. Alexander's placement of cavalry was the key to the breaking of the Persian's who's power had been feared all through the Greek areas. Unlike Barca--who lost against Scippio, and lost a large portion of his force before facing the Romans. Both Hannible and Alexander gained there forces from their prestigious fathers. It was how they used them that made them great. Alexander was able to use different parts of the forces that he gained while on conquest to make a more universal army. He used political maneuvers to gain allies and cause the people of the conquered areas to follow him. Something that only a few could do, such as Octavian. Alexander the Great led the rise of the Hellenistic period and the spread of culture. That is why he is considered great.


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 3 years ago from Buffalo, New York. Author

Hello Great Armies.

Alexander failed to forge an empire. He never truly made his subjects believe in his cause.

For example, he had to execute the Thracian regiments in his army because they were so unruly. Upon Alexander's death his kingdom was torn apart by the men who followed him, men who had no vision of a united Hellenistic world.

Thanks for coming by and sharing your idea.


Great Armies 3 years ago

Alexander did not fail to forge an empire, as Defined by Merriam Webster dictionary an empire is " : a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empire).

As every empire in history has shown people don't like to be defeated and ruled over. Alexander was able to counter this to some degree.

---He got the Greeks to join him by telling them it was revenge for the Persian's burning of the Acropolis.

---The people of the east, including Egypt, he gained by having himself named a son of god. The people of the east believed that their leaders were sons of the gods. The people were more likely to follow him after he was named Zeus Amen.

---He also wished for his men to intermarry. This meaning that they marry people from the previous Persian empire. This would create a more combined nation. He even married multiple Persians in order to show that he would even do it.

---He also treated the people kindly and didn't change things much. He kept the governments similar to what they were and allowed the people to continue practicing what religions they wanted. This is why their was never a problem with the Jewish people under his reign.

---He also gained leaders as friends, including Pontus whom he defeated and allowed to keep his land. This kept the people under his power.

To address his kingdoms fall is a hard thing to do as well as hard to blame him. One common belief is that he said "to the strongest" which i believe in Greek is Krateristus. This is extremely close to Kraterus which was one of the generals that was under Alexanders command. He was also not there when Alexander died, this means he could not take the leadership. It was also possible that Alexander had not been able to speak before he died this means he could not have given anyone command.

He may have previously not have wanted to choose a successor because of the history of Macedonian kings that died due to the men around them. I am sure there are many other possible reasons but as i mentioned above it is not possible for us to understand what happened. All we know is that his empire was held together after his death by a number of generals who had agreed to split the power until Alexander IV grew old enough to take command. This only lasted for a little while until his men fought against each other. All but maybe Ptolemy wanted a united Hellenistic kingdom the only problem being that they each wanted to rule it. This is not entirely Alexanders fault seeing as he is dead. It is seen throughout the different ruling nations that given a chance people will grasp for the chance to rule completely. See both triumvirates as an example.

---Alexander's men loved him for his generosity-- he paid off many of there debts. He also listened to their complaints, such as their mutiny which was caused by homesickness. Even then they felt bad for wanting to turn back. He once drove into the enemy by himself causing his men to come after him. Everything he asked of his men, he would do himself. This caused his men to love him.

---Though he did not do everything correctly, such as the burning of Persepolis. He did hold to his agreements with the Greeks by sending them home after he defeated the Persians. Every great leader made mistakes that is true. For example Hannibal didn't march on Rome after the battle of Cannea. This caused him not to defeat the Romans. After his defeat he was said to say that Alexander was the greatest leader, then Pyrrhus, then finally himself Hannibal. Another great leader Caesar was said to have cried one day while reading about Alexander because he himself had not done nearly as much as Alexander had by the age of 30.I see no real reason to say that he was not great. He was looked up to by the leaders of Rome and his tactics are still used to day by modern military's. He also created a new form of hand to hand combat that is still taught. Even though his empire did not last as long as some his ideas and skill shows his greatness.


Nick Vlahopoulos profile image

Nick Vlahopoulos 3 years ago

Gee you must be real fun at parties..


Great Armies 3 years ago

Who wouldn't want to hear about Alexander the Great at a party?


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 3 years ago from Buffalo, New York. Author

Hello Nick,

I think me and Great Armies would have an awesome party.

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