Debunk the myth of Alexander the Great, his conquests and his adversaries

Jul 2018
Hong Kong

Revisionism is totally necessary for promoting the perfection of historiography. It endued phenomenons, events or people with new meanings and perspectives by different theories and interpretations, while rectifing something misinterpreted or intently distorted by historians' bias. Hence, countless books had been written about the biography of some of the greatest human beings whose tales always captivate us with their mighty feats and influence over the world, such like Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, and....Alexander the Great.

Why we need to keep "upgrading" our understanding of Alexander the Great ? The story was almost essentially the same with all those primary sources dig already. His fascinating legends, his military achievements, his charismatic and affectionate relationship with his companions and soldiers, his political instincts and goals inspired by broad visions of "new world" composed of multi-ethnic integration — haven't I known him sufficient enough to have the "consummate explanation" of his life and career ? Unfortunately, there're no "consummation" in the dictionary of historiography. Even with the abundance of informations showing the entire picture of stories, there're still plenty of "possibilities" in interpretations — more informations, more confusing they are, and further enhances the complexity of issues.

Honestly, how much do you know about the deeds of Alexander the Great and the world he lived in ? This thread's purpose is sweeping aside all those legends and constructing the real image of this towering figure, and re-examining some facts we might neglect for his military campaigns and his adversaries to help us perceive what kind of situation these figures were encountering with based on the context instead of our own imagination or subjectivity.

Of course, I'm lack of ability and knowledge for this extraordinary task alone, but with your constructive help by offering feedbacks and opinions through our interaction, I believe that this thread would be very meaningful.

Where to begin with ? Let's begin with this one.

Myth #1:Alexander the Great's "immaturity" — arrogance, lack of self-control and impetuosity

One of the most popular misconceptions is blending his "personal flaws" with his "ability as a military and political leader". By magnifying the stories such as his alcoholism or "cruel killing" of Cleitus the Black, the anti-Alexander critics intentionally utilized these flaws to conclude that he was a tyrant and fond of making rash or ill-considered decisions in some occasions. His assassination of Parmenion displayed his tendency of "paranoidism". And his life-risking acts or decisions in military campaigns could be interpreted as "reckless" and "ill-considered" in their eyes.

Yet such an arrogant, impetuous and ill-considered king was able to exercise effective control over his subordinates with his utmost effort of facilitating unity under his banner for many years, winning allegiances of the Persian aristocrats and some local tribal rulers who flocked to his banner with his diplomatic acumen, and securing the tremendous popularity and trust among his soldiers, sufficed to show that he was not a person running businesses capriciously — think about it, he had to interact with thousands of people constantly, acting as a great leader imbued with unwavering confidence and great rhetorics. Politics and diplomacy had become the integral part of himself. How possible would he act or decide rashly simply because of his short-sightedness ? Yes, he was conceited and cocky, but that didn't necessarily mean some of his controversial decisions were foolish or unwise. On the contrary, I think that he had his own "calculation" over these matters.

Indeed, his conflicts with subordinates were largely attributed to the polarization between the pro-Persian and the pro-traditional factions and customs. In short, essentially it was the "political strife" about Alexander's attempt to strengthen his authority over his subordinates and his empire. For this, I will depict it later.

And in the subsequent episode, I will begin with the youthhood education of Alexander the Great as the first step to "debunk" this myth. I'll leave this to the next update and leave for you to ponder on the arguments I wrote.
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
The upbringing and education of the young prince

Although the King of Macedon Philip II had seven wives, he bore only two children, one of them was even "retarded" (according to Plutarch’s report). So naturally Alexander who showed promising talent in aptitude of learning and social interaction since his childhood became the only option of royal heir in inheriting the throne. In other words, his parents would surely ensure their son receiving the best elite education for preparation of his future reign and military command. Then, how did they materialized the plan ?

When Alexander was seven years old, Olympias arranged her uncle Leonidas as a tutor. Leonidas was a person of austere character, and trained the young prince in rigid discipline. There was another tutor named Lysimachus of Acarnania. Together they trained the prince how to ride, fight, hunt and play lyres, and supervised him in study and all sorts of physical training. The Athenian ambassador Aeschines who had an opportunity to witness Prince Alexander for his diplomatic mission to Pella (the capital of Macedon) recorded:

"He (Alexander) came in to play the lyre, and he also recited and debated with another boy."

Undoubtly, activities like this helped the prince to increase his ability of social intercourse and communication. At the meantime, he showed great passion in music and literature, and his fervent love to them was as strong as to conquest and war. Coupled with the legends and anecdotes passing down from antiquity (though mostly were adorned with overdone propagation), such as the taming of Bucephalus, his conversation with the Persian envoy, and his of being inspired by the heroic poetry of Homer, revealed that not only martial prowess and extraordinary courage were required as a royal heir, but many sorts of knowledge and talents had to be learned. Hence, we should never underestimate the wisdom or leadership of the ancient monarchs or heirs — in most of the times they received the best education for which the commoners would be never accessible to and the "armchair expert" like us could hardly endure and persist imagining of the heavy burdens and expectations laid upon your tender shoulders.

When Alexander reached his age of thirteen, Philip II was resolute to further sharpen his aptitude for preparation of reign. Therefore, he invited the top-classed Greek Scholar Aristotle for being a tutor of the young prince. Aristotle not only conferred the knowledge of astronomy, geography, music, biology, politics and medicine on him, but also devoted to spiritual guidance on him, thus played a major role in fostering Alexander's growth of personality. In order to cast a light for Aristotle's spiritual influence exerted upon the prince, it would be expedient for explanation by summarizing this Greek philosopher's ideologies of ethics.

According to the narration of the Japanese Wikipedia website, Aristotle opined that every activity of human beings have his own purpose, with "supreme good" as its utmost, which denotes the greatest happiness generated by the excellence of human beings' activities. The so-called happiness doesn't only include the enjoyment of materials, wealth and power, but also the "supreme virtue” achieved by the satisfaction of your spirit, the so-called “eudemonism”. The most important for reaching the stage of supreme virtue is “the mean of moderation”. What is “moderation” ? In cite:

1. Whatever you faced, favorable or adverse, brace them calmly

2. Whether the mood of joy or grievance should be regulated

3. Don’t be so miserly, to be generous in spending of your wealth

4. Never excessively pursue your fame

5. Never getting too angry

6. Always be kind, genuine and witty in association with other people

Aristotle also advocated that the sense of righteousness is distributed by ratio of geometry, supplementing the lost portion by drawing out from other sectors on the basis of arithmetics, consequential to the “equal exchange of righteousness”. Virtually, the political science is the extension of ethics — if the ruler access to the “supreme virtue”, he is capable to bring his subjects to happiness.

Undoubtly, Aristotle would lecture the young Alexander the similar sorts of spiritual values. Under the tutoring of such an excellent philosopher who knew too well about the way of human being, combined with the forging of elite education, do you still think that Alexander was a kind of person getting angry simply due to alcoholism or just a whim ? If he’s just a man easily losing control over his personal emotion, and was foolish enough to vent his rage upon other people merely because of the trivial matter or just a whim, I wonder how could he win and conquer other people’s heart and soul by his charisma and rationality !? If he was as irritable as those evil tyrants shown in the childish novel, then he only ended up in the same consequence as his half-brother Arrhidaeus — no respect or submission transpired from others, only scornfulness. Think about it, if what he did was just at his personal mood or liking, without concerning of the interest or standpoint of the other people or any faction, then by what virtue and ability he reigned and impelled other people flock to his banner ? With such hilarious level of emotional self-control, I wonder how did he become a mighty conqueror in the world history.

Furthermore, during the period of that Alexander spent with his “companions” who were the children of the Macedonian nobility such as Ptolemy, Hephaistion, Cassander in the peaceful countryside retreat of Mieza wherein they studied together under the tutoring of Aristotle, these companions quickly became the young prince’s close friends and allies, and subsequently as his right-hand men in the future conquest. As a gifted youth imbued with vigor and intelligence, the young prince surely realized how to get alone with those children who was also receiving elite education as him, viewed them as his comrades as he strived for winning their heart and identification. The energetic interactions between the upper-class children would be certainly another priceless lesson for the young prince. This kind of social experience was crucial to shaping Alexander’s personality fitted for building his image as a strong and charisma leader.

It’s impossible for you to deny my above-mentioned points unless you just use your own perspective to judge his personality — as a bright young teen with great potentiality fostered as a heir by his father, the current king, do you truly think that his character was as flawed as a buffoon who was supposed to be a “laughing stock” in the eyes of some 21st century history learners ? At least he was far stronger and tougher than us. If you're already acquainted of this, yet still persisted to the theory that he was lack of emotional self-control and greatly alienated his subordinates and allies with his arrogantly egoistic manner, I deem that you're completely incapable in understanding the life and career of a great man — the great men's "greatness" attributed to their superior vision and culture, which was applicable even to a notorious dictator like Adolf Hitler.
  • Like
Reactions: Gvelion
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
You may refute my argument with the vivid example of the US general George Patton who slapped soldiers in two occasions:Even a great man might lose their control over personal emotion ! You're right, they would get very angry and start venting their bursting emotion at somebody in due time, they're just a human being anyway ; nonetheless, they surely had “sufficient reasons” for flying into a fury (at least their explanation would be quite convincing). Although this thread is about Alexander the Great, it would be helpful for understanding Alexander’s personality trait by revealing how General Patton defended his impetuous act. Patton wrote after the Second World War:

“There are always a certain number of such weaklings in any Army, and I suppose the modern doctor is correct in classifying them as ill and treating them as such. However, the man with malaria doesn't pass his condition on to his comrades as rapidly as does the man with cold feet nor does malaria have the lethal effect that the latter has.”

Patton’s directive to the Seventh Army, 5th August 1943:

“It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards and bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades, whom they heartlessly leave to endure the dangers of battle while they, themselves, use the hospital as a means of escape. You will take measures to see that such cases are not sent to the hospital but dealt with in their units. Those who are not willing to fight will be tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

Patton agitatedly uttered in his conversation with Colonel Donald E. Currier who was the hospital’s commander:

"I can't help it, it makes my blood boil to think of a yellow bastard being babied.”

Therefore, even when a great man failed to restrict their anger and committed a blunder, it’s not because of their capriciousness or stupidity with just a rash thought at a whim, but the instinctive response to the counterpart whom they found in sharp conflict with their “core interest” such as value, fame, status….etc. after a thought. Once you manifest this, you’re surely able to understand that Alexander’s anger and obstinacy was actually the natural and necessary response in dealing with all sorts of real-life challenges rather than a serious flaw of his character for which some critics love to make him faulty of.

I ended my first update here. Next time I’ll discuss about the Attalus Incident in which the young prince entered into a outright conflict with his father. Was Alexander’s defiance in the wedding banquet really simply “throwing a tantrum” ? What’s the significance behind this “farce” ?
  • Like
Reactions: Gvelion

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
Ontario, Canada
I'll have to give this a proper look. I'm no expert on Alexander but I have questioned the size of the Persian armies.
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
I'll have to give this a proper look. I'm no expert on Alexander but I have questioned the size of the Persian armies.
Unquestionably, the Persian army's number was seriously exaggerated by ancient historians, but it's certain that Alexander's army was heavily outnumbered. The Persian army's performance and military command were always downplayed by people — another interesting myth.
Jul 2017
Difficult to " debunk " the life and deeds of Aleander on the basis of personal imperfections and flaws that every human possesses
in the course of their life.He exhibited without a doubt the genius in military art, strategy and command, that only a chosen few have accomplished in their lifetimes.

Alexander built an army on innovation, strategic planning and zeal, incorporating war elephants, longer spears, body armour his enemies lacked and strong discipline.His conquests ended when in India upon learning that his adversaries have a more numerous number of elephants and live power than his multiethnic army could ever imagine.
Nov 2011
The Bluff
The upbringing and education of the young prince

Although the King of Macedon Philip II had seven wives, he bore only two children, one of them was even "retarded" (according to Plutarch’s report).
Philip sired four children: Arrhidaios, Alexander III, Kynane and Thessalonike. The latter two, while daughters, were to play significant roles in the years following Alexander's death.

I can only second Dan Howard's recommendation: Bosworth's Conquest and Empire. Everything you're attempting has been done in that concise volume.
  • Like
Reactions: Tokugawa Ieyasu


Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
Unquestionably, the Persian army's number was seriously exaggerated by ancient historians, but it's certain that Alexander's army was heavily outnumbered. The Persian army's performance and military command were always downplayed by people — another interesting myth.
You could classify Alexander's army as 'professional soldiers' - and bloody good ones at that. In the same way that 300 Templars or 1000 Janissaries in their days could outweigh large numbers of opposition in a world of part-timers and feudal peasants, sort of thing

The Persian 'elite' troops sort of remind me of what the press repeatedly called 'The Elite Republican Guard' in the first Gulf War - which lasted about 5 minutes when the ground war started