Growing up in a Greek immigrant family I was always fascinated by the military heroes of ancient Greece. I read stories of great Athenians generals such as Pericles and Themistocles; the Theban leader Epaminondas, who was one of the first generals to beat Sparta in battle; and of course, Leonidas, the Spartan king who led history’s most famous heroic last stand at the battle of Thermopylae (creatively depicted in the movie 300).
The most famous of all classical military leaders was Alexander the Great. If anyone was deserving of the epithet Great surely it was the young Warrior-King of Macedonia. In the introduction to Alexander the Great, Lessons From History’s Undefeated General, Gen (retired) Wesley Clark (former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) makes the case for greatness of Alexander the Great:
- “Alexander the Great was the first great military commander of the west. Before him were legends or mere mortals; after him, all were emulators.”
- “…history’s first and greatest undefeated general.”
- “Alexander’s life was to fight and conqueror, to craft and lead armies, to seek and solve complex tactical and strategic challenges, whether they were military, logistical or geographic.”
- “His physical gifts were awesome. Strength, coordination, stamina, eyesight – even his physical appearance was impressive.”
- “And, at the same time, he was tutored by the best minds of contemporary civilization, including Aristotle.
No wonder there was so much written about Alexander’s life. Richard A. Gabriel, military historian explains in his book The Madness of Alexander the Great and the Myths of Military Genius there were thousands of publications about history’s first boy-wonder: “An online bibliographic search reveals no fewer than 4,897 books about Alexander and an another 16,000 or so published academic articles and popular magazine pieces.”
Is there any surprise why the Greeks, and subsequent historians have come to call him Megas Alexandros – literally, the Great Alexander?
As a young kid I was sold on Alexander’s brilliance and that wonder continued as I studied his campaigns, strategies and tactics in detail at West Point, and as a young Army officer.
But as I read some of the works of other military historians I began to form a more nuanced opinion of the Great Alexander. In fact, reading the some of the works of three of the most renowned ancient military historians gave me a different perspective.
The above mentioned military historian, Richard Gabriel, has a different take on this famous warrior-king. He concludes that the policies, strategies and vision of his father, King Philipp, were the real cause of Alexander’s success. Alexander, Gabriel writes, ‘was the prototypical Homeric warrior fighting for personal glory and reputation, a military adventure almost entirely lacking in strategic vision.” Gabriel compares him to his father King Philipp who “always properly saw war as a means to his strategic goals, and much preferred to achieve his objectives by other ‘less kinetic’ means, such as diplomacy.”
Gabriels conclusion of Alexander is counter to the typical adulatory praise of most historians: