Saturday, 11 August 2018

Alexander Again

Never let it be said that I am unwilling to flog a dead horse, or to disturb a sleeping dog. As those of you who read it may have noticed from the last post, my thoughts are turning towards Macedon again, and the escapades of Alexander III, sometimes known as ‘the Great’.

Specifically, I have been reading:

Anson, E. M., Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

This is by a scholar of the man himself, and, as the title implies, looks at some of the more disputed and controversial bits of historiography related to Alexander and his times.

The first thing to note is that Anson thinks that alexander obtained the ‘the Great’ bit fairly early after his death, although as someone noted the last time I discussed this, the first reference to this is in Plautus, the Roman comedic playwright (p. 1). However, Anson argues that the Greeks gave him this name for conquering the Persian Empire, not for being generally great. After all, Anson also notes, Alexander has been characterised in a number of ways in the historiography: ‘The Pretty Good’, ‘The Downright Awful’, a paranoid, a drunkard, someone in constant competition with an assassinated father, and with an Oedipal complex. He has also been seen as a civiliser, and the cause, at least, of mass murder. Here, at least, is a complex historical character.

The wargamer will probably be most attracted to Chapter 2 of the book, which deals with the reign of Phillip II and the rise of Macedon. This discusses the many changes which Phillip seems to have wrought in Macedon itself, not least in reforming the army. Originally, the Macedonian state had been barely a state at all, just a bunch of nobles owning land and acting as companions to the king. Phillip started to win battles and, hence, land, which he distributed not just to nobles but to others who became a burgeoning ‘middle class’, who owed their status, and hence were loyal, to the king. This was the core of the Macedonian infantry.

Anson notes that the sarissa was introduced very early in Phillip’s reign. As a defensive weapon is required much less training than the hoplite panoply and it was cheaper, although Phillip’s income increased rapidly after 356. Middle class Greeks could keep their panoply, but native Macedonians were pastoralists and tenant farmers who could not. The indications are, according to Anson, that Phillip had an independent command before his brother’s death at the hand of the Illyrians in 359, and may have started using the sarissa then (p. 49).

The other innovation Phillip implemented was the foot companions, the pezhetairoi or hypaspists. These could serve as sarissa armed phalagites of be equipped for hand to hand combat, a 15 to 18 foot long pike not being ideal for that. It was these troops that Alexander took in fast moving situations.

There is no evidence that Phillip had a ‘master plan’, but, after a little bit of pushing and shoving in Greece, must have realised that seizing mastery of Greece was a possibility. The question was what to do next, and that had to be something to unite the Greeks. The answer, as we all know, was the invasion the Persian Empire. This was a pan-Hellenic ideal, to punish Persia for the damage to Greek temples and other involvement in Greece over the centuries. Of course, other aims were involved: Persia was reported to be a plunderer’s paradise; some saw the war as a good way to get rid of Phillip, as he was unlikely to return, and so on.

The question is then to what extent did Alexander simply land up in the fortunate position of having domination over Greece, and good army and a bridgehead in Asia, compared to his own ability to conquer the Persian Empire? As with most questions in history, this one can be argued either way. No doubt Phillip left him in a strong position, but he did have to take the initiative and, of course, win the battles.

Other chapters in the book deal with interesting, but less wargame related material. The fist discusses to what extent the Macedonian army became a democracy, focussing on the meetings of the army in Alexander’s later years, the ‘mutiny’ refusing to go further into India, and responses to the death of the king. There is an interesting chapter of Alexander’s deification – how much he thought he was actually a living god by the end of his life, and whether this fitted into Greek of Persian patterns of humans, heroes and gods. It is around these issues that many people start to wonder whether Alexander was of sound mind, but perhaps we do not understand the classical mind-set sufficiently to judge.

The other interesting chapter for the wargamer is Chapter 5, which discusses Alexander’s kingdom of Asia. This observes that the conquests after the fall of the Persian Empire had to fit a different rhetoric to the theme of punishment. Conquest became the idea. Alexander often confirmed in place the rulers of places he conquered, such as Porus. He was interested in conquering stuff, not really forming an empire. Further, he started to recruit Persians into the army, and Persian practices into the court. This caused a lot of dissent from the Macedonians who, as we all know, largely wanted to go home.

In terms of the campaign I mentioned last week, however, it would seem that the army that would be used against Carthage would consist, at least in part, of Persian troops, some armed in Macedonian fashion (Persians were recruited into the Companion cavalry, for example) but presumably some using their traditional weapons and tactics. Once a horse archer, I suppose, always a horse archer, or at least, you are useful enough to be employed as a horse archer, rather than retrained as a phalangite, for example.  

So, this is an interesting, scholarly, book, with a good bibliography of references to follow up upon. The question not answered, of course, is the one stated up front: was Alexander mad, bad, great, a god or just lucky?

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