Historians say the battlefield atrocities of the Macedonian king were part of his brilliant military strategy. But were they really born of his personality?
Alexander III, king of the ancient state of Macedon, is often heralded as one of history’s greatest military commanders. Undefeated in battle, he un leashed his army on countries great and small to forge an empire that stretched over three continents, from Greece to India and as far south as Egypt. He did all this in a little more than a decade after taking power at the age of 20.
But the man known as Alexander the Great was also one of history’s worst monsters. He was a murderous, rage-filled, paranoid, alcoholic, religious fanatic who, on at least one occasion, showed a fondness for what today might be considered necrophilia. He murdered often, at times indiscriminately. He assassinated rivals a dozen at a time, slaughtered innocents by the thousands, and exterminated entire tribes of people. It’s no exaggeration to say that Alexander killed off a generation of Macedonian officers—veterans he needed to run the army he inherited from his father, Philip. Nor were friends and family spared; within days of taking the throne, he killed Philip’s most recent wife and her new infant.
Recent scholarship has added detail to many of Alexander’s atrocities. But there’s still little to explain them. Some historians write the horrors off as the excesses of a megalomaniac and alcoholic. Indeed, he was drunk when he ordered the burning of the Persian capital, Persepolis, in 330.
Other scholars argue that Alexander’s barbarity stemmed from a strategic decision to systematically destroy his enemy, root and stem. [See “Alexander the Killer,” Spring 1998.]
These theories don’t always add up. Alexander’s atrocities, for example, often did more to stir opposition than to quell it; he was too smart to pursue such a failing strategy for long. But there’s at least one other explanation worth exploring: His penchant for atrocity and violence may have been rooted in deepseated fears that he did not have what it took to be a soldier and commander. Though the most formidable figure of his time, he grew up estranged from the culture of the Macedonian warrior and came to power ill equipped to command an army. Marginalized and perhaps insecure about his abilities, he seemed angry and intent on proving himself through violence. Many accounts of his most heinous crimes describe him as flying into a rage, his anger begetting violence.
It is, of course, risky business to plumb the psychological depths of such a complex historical figure as Alexander, particularly because antiquity provides scant data. Yet the exercise proves valuable, if only to suggest a different way to understand the enigmas that Alexander’s life presents.
The Macedonian society of Alexander’s day was based on values and practices that were Homeric in origin, form, and function. Unlike most Greek city-states, where the male-dominated warrior society had died out, Macedonia was still a land of clans and tribes bonded by warriorhood, dynastic bloodlines, and powerful kings. Alexander’s world was one in which the Iliad was not an epic tale but an illustration of how men still lived—riding, drinking, and fornicating with rude energy and enthusiasm.
As in the Iliad, society valued power, glory, and bravery most of all. On the field of battle, warriors were expected to demonstrate their bravery to win honor and the esteem of their fellow soldiers.
Men were required to prove their courage at a young age. The Macedonian rulers considered themselves descendants of the Greek hero Heracles, and the singlehanded killing of a wild boar—linked in Macedonian mythology to one of Heracles’s 12 labors—was an important rite of passage for warriors. Until a man killed a wild boar, he was not permitted to recline at table and eat meat with other soldiers; instead, he had to sit upright for all to notice.
In another Homeric custom, a Macedonian youth who had not yet slain a man in battle was required to wear a cord around his waist to mark him as unblooded. Only when he achieved his first kill could he abandon the cord and join the ranks of warriors.
The sons of Macedonian nobles attended the Royal Page School, the Macedonian West Point. Cadets entered at age 14 and graduated at 18; about 200 were enrolled at any one time. Besides receiving a typical Greek liberal arts education, the students were put through rigorous military training. Rough living, horsemanship, fasting, endurance training, hunting, and weapons proficiency were required.
Senior cadets sat at the king’s table, cared for his horses, served as his bodyguards, and accompanied him on campaign. Some fell in battle protecting their sovereign. The Royal Page School was the proving ground for Macedonia’s combat officers and administrators; Aristotle called it “a school for generals.”
Alexander seems not to have met any of the requirements of a young Macedonian warrior. There is no suggestion in the historical accounts that he hunted and killed a wild boar. Nor did he attend the Royal Page School for any significant length of time, if at all. Instead, he was sent at 14 from the court at Pella, the capital, to a private academy set up by Aristotle at Mieza, several miles away. There, Alexander studied poetry, philosophy, literature, and learned to play the lyre—a skill his father belittled because the lyre was an instrument of the Athenian aristocracy. Military studies at the academy were limited to a reading of the Iliad; the historian Plutarch tells us that Alexander carried a copy of the work with him throughout his campaigns.
By attending Aristotle’s academy, Alexander missed the opportunity to mix with the young warriors and royal princes who would become Macedonia’s military elite. Students at the Royal Page School typically formed bonds of comradeship, trust, and loyalty with their classmates—bonds that later served them well in war. When Alexander assumed command of the Macedonian army in 336, he was in essence an outsider, a soldier as unknown to his officer corps as they were to him.
Alexander had only limited exposure to combat before becoming king. At 17, he served as temporary regent while his father campaigned in Perinthus and Scythia (340–339 BC). When the Maedi, a tribe living on the upper Strymon River (in present-day Bulgaria), revolted, he mounted a small expedition, put down the uprising, and established a city or small fortified outpost named after himself—Alexandropolis. At Philip’s decisive victory over Athens, Thebes, and the other Greek city-states at Chaeronea in 338, Philip placed Alexander, then 18, in command of the cavalry on the left flank, according to the Greek historian Diodorus. But it appears that the king did not have full faith in his son; he stationed Alexander alongside his key commanders, including Parmenion and Antipater. Diodorus notes that “Alexander and his men were the first to force their way through” the enemy line, but this may mean only that Alexander commanded one of the wedge-shaped cavalry squadrons that struck all along the line, creating gaps for the remaining cavalry to burst through.
Interestingly, Alexander apparently did not chalk up his first kill in either of these two early ventures. Records make no mention of such an achievement.
Alexander also stood apart from the warrior culture in his physical appearance. The Macedonians were a big people, thanks largely to their land’s plentiful meat and grain. The men were tall, robust, dark skinned; they had thick, cropped hair and wore beards. Not so Alexander. He was at best average height, perhaps only 5 foot 2. His hair was blond and tousled, and it is said that he wore it long to “resemble a lion’s mane.” He was fair skinned and clean shaven, a sign to some of femininity. His teeth were sharply pointed “like little pegs,” according to Alexander biographer Peter Green. Alexander’s voice was high pitched and “tended to harshness when he was excited,” says Green. He was given to scurrying about in a fast and nervous manner, and he carried his head to the left, either out of some physical defect (perhaps torticollis) or mere affectation.
Adds Green: “There is something almost girlish about his earliest portraits [on busts and coins], a hint of leashed hysteria.”
Then there is the touchy subject of Alexander’s homosexual proclivities. Philip and his wife, Olympias, worried early on about their son’s apparent lack of heterosexual interests. The Greek scholar Theophrastus says they feared that Alexander might be turning into a gynnis, or “womanish man.” Olympias went so far as to procure a Thessalian courtesan named Callixeina to “help develop his manly nature,” as Green put it. The effort was apparently unsuccessful. Plutarch wrote that Alexander “did not know any woman before he married, other than Barsine,” a Persian noblewoman with whom Alexander is supposed to have had an affair in 333 BC, when he was 23.
Alexander had many male lovers over the years, notably his friend Hephaestion, who also attended Aristotle’s academy and went on to become a general in Alexander’s army. When Heph – aestion fell sick and died in 324 BC, Arrian says that Alexander’s grief was so great that “he flung himself upon the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears.”
Many Alexander scholars—notably, the British scholar William W. Tarn in his influential 1933 biography of Alexander—see homosexuality as well within the mainstream of Macedonian culture. But Tarn and others wrongly assume that Macedonian mores reflected those of Athens, where sexual contact between men and boys was accepted as a part of mentoring. Macedonia— a society that valued manliness, bravery in war, the sexual conquest of women, and the fathering of children—was far less tolerant of homosexuality than Athens. Here, man-boy sexual relationships were seen as more of an occasional fashion; long-term sexual relationships between two grown men were frowned upon.
This was particularly true in the military. Theopompus, a Greek who wrote in the fourth century BC, said that soldiers who were homosexuals were considered “whores” and “harlots.” Although they were “men-slayers,” they were by nature “mensodomizers.”
Whatever Alexander’s status within the military elite, his ascension to the throne was complicated. When Philip was murdered in 336 BC, Alexander was one of at least three surviving sons. In Macedonian practice, any son, legitimate or illegitimate, had an equal claim to the throne. Alexander killed at least one rival, the son of one of Philip’s concubines. The sons of other branches of the royal family also presented a challenge, but Antipater—the only one of Philip’s senior officers who was close to Alexander—quickly persuaded the Macedonian assembly to proclaim Alexander king. Such speedy action was essential; Attalus and Parmenion, two of Philip’s generals and leaders of powerful branches of the royal family, were away from Pella on a campaign—an absence that made it possible to crown the untested Alexander as king.
It’s hard to imagine that Alexander was confident about his ability to lead combat veterans and gain their respect. With so little military experience, he had no alternative but to rely upon his generals for advice and guidance. The relationship between the Macedonian officer corps and the king was open and democratic; a soldier’s standing was based upon demonstrated courage on the battlefield and not upon birth or wealth. Every warrior had “equal rights of speech,” as the Roman Curtius wrote in the first century AD, and Alexander’s men apparently didn’t hesitate to exercise that right. They disapproved when he appeared before them wearing the white robes, jeweled slippers, and upright tiara of the Persian king. The royal secretary Eumenes had the temerity to suggest that Alexander neglected affairs of state because Alexander “was too fascinated by Hephaestion’s thighs!”
Alexander was well aware of his men’s doubt. His men criticized his decisions publicly, often during drinking bouts that the king frequently attended. (To compete with his officers, big men who had been drinking for years, Alexander often drank far more than his small frame could tolerate.)
Alexander likely didn’t take their critiques lightly. As an outsider to warrior culture, he may have felt that their questions, however innocuous, directly challenged his leadership. He may also have suspected that they disapproved of his homosexual activities or questioned his manhood.
Did their criticism fuel his feelings of inadequacy? That’s hard to substantiate, but Alexander was certainly eager to prove himself to his men and earn their acceptance. To that end, he fought bravely, often to the point of recklessness. He was wounded many times, and though descriptions of these injuries are often embellishments that defy medical possibility, he clearly threw himself into battle with abandon. At the siege of the citadel at Multan in 325, during the India campaign, Alexander grew annoyed at the lack of progress and grabbed a scaling ladder from a soldier. He then climbed the citadel wall and jumped inside—a near suicidal move, according to Arrian, but an act that Alexander, if he died, would wear “as the crown of an exploit which would live upon the lips of men.” Horrified, his comrades jumped in after him. In the struggle that followed, Alexander was struck in the chest with an arrow, a grievous wound that nearly killed him.
Such seemingly foolish acts of bravery may have been a bid to win the respect of his officers. But did resentment and feelings of inadequacy fuel the violence that would become Alexander’s trademark? Beginning in 335 with the conquest and burning of Thebes, one of Greece’s oldest and most renowned cities, Alexander’s record on the battlefield is punctuated by massacre, murder, torture, and disfigurement. Some historians describe these atrocities as part of Alexander’s empire-building strategy; through dramatic displays of death and destruction, they say, he hoped to snuff out each enemy and deter others from mounting a challenge. But in many cases, the accounts of these incidents do not describe Alexander making calm, rational decisions in pursuit of a strategy. Instead, they portray a man boiling over with a blind rage that’s disproportionate to the situation and seemingly without cause.
Consider Alexander during the capture of Gaza in 332. After a two-month siege in which some 10,000 in the city were killed, Betis, Gaza’s Persian governor, was brought before him. Though threatened with death, Betis remained silent and unbowed. With this defiance, Curtius tells us, “Alexander’s anger turned to fury….Thongs were passed through Betis’ ankles while he still breathed, and he was tied to a chariot. Then Alexander’s horses dragged him around the city while the king gloated at having followed the example of his ancestor, Achilles, in punishing his enemy.”
Alexander displayed a similar lightning-quick outburst of fury in 328, when the Scythian cities of Persia revolted. He destroyed at least one of the cities to “keep the others in line,” according to Curtius. But at Cyropolis, the largest of the towns, “resistance of its people so inflamed his rage, that after its capture he ordered it to be sacked.” Of the 15,000 men defending the town, 8,000 were killed outright. Citizens of another town took refuge in a fortress but were massacred when they surrendered for lack of water.
The next year, during his India campaign, Alexander showed how quickly his anger could flare and spark violence. In the Swat Valley of Pakistan, after beating down opposition from a people called the Assacenians, he agreed to release a group of mercenaries who had fought with them at the siege of Massaga. The mercenaries left and encamped with their women and children many miles away. But Alexander apparently had a change of heart; he followed with his army and “falling upon them suddenly wrought a great slaughter,” according to Diodorus. Alexander “nursed an implacable hostility” toward the soldiers, the historian says, and to satisfy that anger, all of the 7,000 mercenaries were killed.
None of these accounts, of course, proves that his monstrous acts were born of deep-seated insecurities. We can never probe his psyche deeply enough to know the truth. But these episodes suggest that the many portraits of Alexander as a military genius have clouded our view of him. We’ve been told again and again of his battlefield greatness, but that doesn’t mean his every move had a strategic purpose. Indeed, some of his most heinous crimes appear to be rooted in his personality, not his generalship. He was Alex the Great, but he was also Alex the Monster.
Richard Gabriel is a distinguished professor in the department of history and war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of 50 books, including Hannibal: The Military Biography of Rome’s Greatest Enemy and Philip II of Macedonia: Greater Than Alexander.
Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.