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To what extent is Arrian’s praise of Alexander’s leadership justified? Essay

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Having studied Alexander’s reign and scrutinised the various great successes he achieved in his short life as king, his “power of inspiring his men” becomes blatently obvious. Thus, even on the rare occasion that Alexander deserves to be criticised there is no doubt that the positive aspects of his leadership greatly outweigh the negative, making Arrian’s praise of Alexander’s leadership truly justified.

Perhaps, it is more accurate to note that Alexander may not have been the most politically astute or modest of men, but irrespective of this the leadership skills he displayed were truly impeccable.

Whilst sharing in all the dangers his army endured throughout the eight difficult years of battles, Alexander continually demonstrated sheer military genius, speed and mobility. Arrian’s praise of Alexander is all the more tangible and acceptable due to the fact that he was writing almost four hundred years after Alexander’s death therefore eliminating any possibility of sycophancy or romanticism.

Arrian’s ‘Campaigns of Alexander’ are thought to be the most accurate and reliable account, heightened by the fact that he actually names his sources, who were both contemporaries of Alexander.

Both Ptolemy and Aristobulus actually accompanied Alexander, and since Ptolemy was a king himself, it would have been disgraceful for him to lie. Arrian is also quick to criticise Alexander when it is deserved, this is indicated by the disgust that he felt at the “servile behaviour” that Alexander allowed many of his followers to indulge in.

This not only indicates how impartial and genuine Arrian is also greatly strengthens the reliability his opinion, in turn helping to justify the praise he adorns upon Alexander. In comparison to the other four surviving sources on Alexander, it is easy to understand why Arrian’s is considered the most accurate. Plutarch, like Arrian portrays Alexander in a favourable light, however, some of it verges on the romantic, thus dismissing it as bias. Justin’s work is widely regarded as unreliable and Curtius is also considered somewhat suspect.

Although Diodorus contains valuable material, his dates are confused and his geography is inaccurate, thus respectively making Arrian’s the most effective account of Arrian’s expeditions The origins of Alexander’s excellent skills as a leader can be traced right back to his impressive upbringing. Sharing many of his father’s traits, it is obvious that Philip bestowed upon Alexander a phenomenal personal courage, a sharpness in decision making, intellectual perception and firm leadership skills all of which aid in verifying Arrian’s appraisal of Alexander’s leadership.

Inheriting a vivid, romantic imagination and a strong will from his formidable mother- Olympias, leaves no doubt that Alexander was brought up in a militarily, politically and socially solid background, again placing him in an excellent mindset to become an effective leader from a very young age. On inheriting the throne at the age of twenty, his father had already built up a strong and powerful state, with a readily trained and experienced army.

Indeed, some historians consequently criticise Alexander on this point, arguing that Alexander’s successes are much attributed to the work of his father, thus deterring from Alexander’s greatness as a leader. However, a more accurate school of thought believe, in agreement with Arrian, that rather than deterring from his leadership skills, his adoption of an already formidable army simply helps to explain how Alexander came to be so effective at leading his men. He didn’t have to start from the beginning and build up his own army, rather he simply took over were his father had left off, with the expedition against Persia already in motion.

In fact, the leadership that Philip exerted upon Alexander very much mirrors the style of leadership that Alexander demonstrated as head of his own army. Naturally Philip recognised in Alexander a continuation of his own ambitions and thus he successfully fostered these ambitions into his eldest child. Plutarch records how Philip challenged Alexander to prove himself “honourable and good so that you might obtain the kingdom not because of me, but because of yourself”, the type of challenge Alexander himself raised to his very own subordinates on several occasions.

The fact that these parallel similarities between Alexander and his father are widely established and accepted, proves that Arrian is not simply speculating or exaggerating Alexander’s abilities as a leader, on the contrary his opinions are based on solid proof of Alexander’s persona. Alexander became a pupil of the most celebrated philosopher of his time, Aristotle, learning from him the principles of ethics and politics, which he in turn passed on to his army.

From an early age he was taught to regard himself as set apart from other men and to believe he had a special relationship with the Gods, this along with his military experience from the tender age of sixteen provided him with an energy and endurance that was inspirational to all of his men, as Arrian accurately records. Arrian outlines an extensive array of positive aspects that compose Alexander’s character, “brave and adventurous”, maintaining an “uncanny instinct for the right course in a difficult situation”.

These positive attributes of speed and mobility, determination, military genius, motivation and having the ability to lead by example, no doubt help to justify Arrian’s praise of Alexander’s leadership skills. In agreement with Arrian, there is no denying that the various battles that Alexander and his men partook in vividly highlight these qualities of great leadership and when assessing both Alexander’s leadership and Arrian’s appraisal of it, these obvious outstanding positive attributes simply cannot remain overlooked.

The motivation and “passion for glory”(Arrian), that Alexander persistently fought with, would have greatly enhanced his leadership skills and in turn developed the motivation and ambitions of his men, thus accounting for the successes that Alexander and his army enjoyed. In fact, the evidence of these continuous successes alone highlight Alexander’s outstanding and noble ability as a leader of an army. Had Alexander been any weaker as a leader surely his expeditions would have failed.

It is Alexander’s motivation and determination that illuminates his supreme and unwavering ability to enjoy success after success for eight long years. Alexander’s catalogue of successful expeditions clearly prove that he “was never held by either bad weather or bad country” (Arrian), and there is no denying that once he embarked upon an enterprise he “never found anything to stop him from carrying it through.

” This remarkable display of perseverance and endurance that Alexander indulged in obviously heightened his army’s stamina and endurance, and the very fact that Alexander was capable of passing on these essential qualities to his men is enough justice to the appraisal that Arrian bestows upon him. Alexander’s determination is alluded to in his ability to be a good leader of his men at all times, the unwavering pride he felt for his army sparked their ambitions and boosted their morale.

Alexander proves this on announcing “the discharge from the army of all men unfit through age or disablement for further service” (Arrian) and although this action provoked great discontent and was bitterly resented by those sent home, it still highlights Alexander’s determination not to let his army suffer at the hands of a weaker few. This unshakeable determination and motivation displayed by Alexander fuelled the strength of his army, an army that was very much powered by Alexander’s ability to lead by example.

Perhaps this ability to lead by example is the single most important quality that establishes Alexander as the leader of all leaders, on remarking “Does any men among you honestly feel that he has suffered more for me than I have suffered for him” (Arrian), highlights how even in his own opinion Alexander considers himself a great leader, making no attempt to disguise how he gave everything he possibly could to his men Alexander indicates that although lacking modesty he maintained the ability to be honest, declaring to his men “I have Laboured to win for you.

“(Arrian) All sources, primary and contemporary agree that Alexander was a dutiful and inspiring leader, leading all of his expeditions from the front, urging his men on to win great victories, and most importantly leading his men with humility and respect. In agreement with Arrian this energy and endurance that Alexander continually led with was an inspiration to his men, and despite any obstacles and difficulties that were met, Alexander through simply struggling on, sharing in the miseries of his troops, effectively created within the army itself an ability to endure.

This very opinion is confirmed by Plutarch’s record that “it was always his habit in a crisis to encourage the Macedonians by sharing in their dangers,” the crisis of crossing the Gedrosian Desert exemplifies this habit, whereby both Alexander and his men were tormented by thirst. Alexander was offered a drink of water but refused on the consideration that if he was to be “the only one to drink, the rest will lose heart.

” (Plutarch) This highlights how at each and every moment Alexander always thought of his men before himself, contemplating how every action he took would have subsequently affected his men, a clear indication of an exceptional leader. On refusing the water, his men “cried out and shouted for him to lead them on boldly… (and they) declared that they could not feel tired or thirsty or even like mortal men so long as they had such a king” (Plutarch).

This statement of utmost praise and respect from the army themselves in their time of great agony, is the greatest proof that Arrian is justified in his appraisal of Alexander as a great leader of men. Here lies the key to understanding the indisputable reliability of Arrian’s praise, surely it is impossible to argue that Alexander was not a great leader of men, whenever the very men that he was leading offer solid evidence to prove that he was.

The marriage of the men at Susa in 324 BC, whereby, “the king was married just as the others were” (Arrian) not only highlights Alexander’s ability to lead by example, but also his ability as a great leader to be careful not to disengage himself from his troops, proving that Alexander was capable of simply enjoying “the companionship of his men”. Arrian points out how “Alexander was always capable of putting himself on an equal footing of equality and comradeship as his subordinates.

” It is consequently irrelevant whether or not Alexander led his men by his own example simply to enhance his men’s ability to succeed militarily in his own “passion for glory”, or whether in fact he was a simply a humble man who felt he was only as good as his soldiers could be. Irrespective, this strategy clearly highlights Alexander’s military genius. Burn highlights that “no soldier in history is more undisputedly “great” than Alexander”.

His genius is apparent in every aspect of warfare and expedition within the eight years, Arrian comments on “his ability to seize the moment for a swift blow, before his enemy had any suspicions of what was coming was beyond praise”. This technique of military genius is particularly highlighted at the Battle of the Hydaspes River 326. Alexander couldn’t cross the swollen river directly as the elephants would have made his horses go mad, and so Alexander “cunningly created many false alarms until Porus was lulled into a sense of security, under the cover of darkness Alexander led a selected force…

across the river. ” (Bradley) This exceptional ability to defeat the formidable army of King Porus in such a cunning way would have greatly motivated Alexander’s army, giving them even greater faith in their leader and in turn offering justification to Arrian’s appraisal of Alexander. It is understandable that when Alexander was faced with opposition or a serious threat he retaliated ruthlessly, as an absolute king he simply could not afford to tolerate opposition to his political agenda and advances, and so he had to ensure he was even more brutal than his opponents.

This is illuminated at the Battle of Gaugamela 331, as Alexander’s cavalry made their charge, the Persian centre completely collapsed under the immense force of the Macedonians, and Darius the leader of Persia fled to Media. Even though Alexander organised the murder of Darius, out of respect he buried him in the ancestral tombs at Persepolis, and was consequently proclaimed the “King of Kings”. This action proves that Alexander was a man of integrity and respect, believing that even his enemy, Darius, deserved the burial ceremony of a king.

This would have taught his troops the valuable lesson that even their enemies deserve respect after death and not to treat them with contempt. Proving in agreement with Arrian, that not only was Alexander a good leader militarily, but also politically a great leader of men. The fact that Mazaces the Persian Governor in 332 was actually induced to “receive Alexander with a show of friendship” and granted him “free entry into Egypt” (Arrian) proves just how impressive a leader Alexander was.

Other provinces simply stood back, and resigned to the fact that they would only be defeated anyway, again enhancing the respect his men would have felt for him and encouraging them to keep succeeding. Alexander always carried out his expeditions with speed and mobility, willing his men to strive to be the best under all circumstances. “His army crossed 20,000km of difficult terrain mainly on foot. ” (D. Hennessy) The fact that Alexander always led his men from the front enduring the suffering that they suffered encouraged them to fight with the same speed and mobility that he demonstrated.

Of all Alexander’s characteristics it is perhaps his generosity of money, time and spirit that sets him apart as a great leader of men, showing a wonderful example to his men, and proving that he is subsequently worthy of Arrian’s praise. Arrian reveals how Alexander in “recognition of a man’s reputation for good service… poured out his money without stint” and the gift of cancelling the men’s debt “amounted to 20,000 talents.

“(Arrian) But perhaps what is of even more importance than this huge act of generosity itself, is the fact that Alexander chose to conceal the names of those men who owed debts, for which they were eternally “grateful”. Alexander through this act of discretion reveals how he completely understood the feelings of his men, considering their humiliation and respecting their honour. And just as we in the modern world regard this ability to be generous without expecting to be praised for doing it, so too Alexander’s own army regarded it as a very noble gesture of great kindness of money and heart.

With Alexander willing to make huge sacrifices for his army, they consequently felt equally obliged to sacrifice themselves under his wise leadership. Whilst debating as to what extent Arrian is justified in praising Alexander’s “power of inspiring his men”, it is easy to acknowledge all these well known positive qualities of leadership that Alexander displayed. However, it must be noted that Alexander’s relationship with the Macedonian nobles and soldiers varied from total loyalty and complete devotion on one hand, to utter resentment and open opposition on the other.

Thus, in order to assess Arrian’s judgement the various incidents that reveal the negative aspects of Alexander’s leadership must be addressed. There is no denying that during the years of Alexander’s reign, 334BC to 323B C, Alexander did introduce various controversial policies and Arrian himself is the first to admit, “Alexander sometimes erred”, this is exemplified by the policy of prostration (proskynesis) which subsequently stemmed great discontent. In Macedonian society prostration was only performed in front of a god, and thus this policy greatly angered them.

However, when Callisthenes spoke out against the policy, even though Alexander was greatly annoyed, he told the Macedonians to simply forget the whole matter. Thus, again Alexander reveals his greatness through admitting when it was time to withdraw a policy in adherence to public demands. Therefore, Arrian’s appraisal is justified initially by his own inclusions of these errors on Alexander’s part, but secondly by Alexander’s own “mobility of heart to be sorry for his mistakes”(Arrian) .

In 330 BC, following Alexander’s advance into Parthia, he began to adopt Persian dress and an oriental lifestyle. Alexander’s rejection of what they had “worn from time immemorial”(Arrian) greatly displeased many of the Macedonians. However, in agreement with Plutarch it can be argued that Alexander was merely a successful social chameleon, indulging in these oriental customs simply in a “step towards softening men’s hearts” and conciliating his new Persian subjects so that they would “feel that they had a king who was not wholly a foreigner”(Arrian).

So in fact, rather than highlight a weakness in Alexander’s leadership it actually indicates the strength of his diplomatic skills, further helping to justify Arrian’s appraisal. It is with regard to the murder of Cleitus, the leader of one of the company divisions, that highlights Alexander’s hot temper and controversial drinking habits. Cleitus was killed in a drunken brawl by Alexander following Cleitus’ suggestion that Alexander should spend all his time with the barbarians, reminding him that it was Macedonian and not Persian blood that had made him so great.

There is definitely room to criticise Alexander here, perhaps he was to close to his army on a personal level, drinking with them on a regular basis and in turn extinguishing any formality between the king and his army. However, this murder must be put into the context of its time, Alexander as king had a duty to protect and defend his honour thus to a certain extent justifying this brutal action of murder. Alexander as king simply could not tolerate treason or outspoken criticism.

Again, the very fact that Alexander had the heart to feel remorseful enough to regret this mistake demonstrates that the appraisal he receives from Arrian is justified. Unlike today’s leaders and politicians who “foolishly suppose they can conceal their error by defending it”(Arrian) Alexander on the contrary taught his men that to be sorry was not a sign of weakness but rather was the greatest sign of strength. Perhaps the most important negative aspect of Alexander’s reign was the one and only defeat he suffered out of twelve tough years of leadership, the defeat by his own army.

The mutiny of Alexander’s troops at the Hydaspes River in India, following a loss in their enthusiasm, marked Alexander’s only withdrawal. Many classical sources argue that Alexander’s failure to appreciate when it was time to stop highlights his inadequacy as a leader, especially since his own troops tried to make him acknowledge that he was “but a man… a nuisance to himself and others”(Arrian). However, this very complaint made by his army themselves ironically helps to justify Arrian’s worship of their leader.

Alexander, unlike his troops never doubted their potential, and this infallible pride and faith in his army drove him to encourage them to continue even when they were exhausted. The ability of a leader not to give up on his army when they have given up on themselves is one of the most essential aspects of leadership, and Alexander demonstrates this time and time again. It is this “strive to better his own best” and that of his army that allowed them to obtain an “unparalleled worldly success”, making him the “undisputed monarch of two continents.

” (Arrian) The very fact that over two thousand years after the death of Alexander, students and historians world-wide continue to debate the “greatness” of Alexander is enough justification of Arrian’s appraisal. Alexander’s leadership of his army “spread the power of his name all over the earth”(Arrian). Over two millennia later Alexander is not remembered for the “severe punishment” he instructed, or the heavy drinking patterns he indulged in, or indeed his own personal thirst for fame.

Alexander is, on the other hand renowned and recalled as “Alexander the Great”, as a man of great generosity and faith, as a great warrior and fighter, and most importantly as a great leader of men. The overlying quality that proves just how impeccable Alexander’s leadership skills were, and accordingly justifies Arrian’s expression of “ungrudging admiration” towards him, is in fact a characteristic shared by both these men, their honesty. Alexander in all his undertakings and enterprises as leader of the Hellespont was continually honest and truthful to his men, praising and rewarding them when he felt due, and scolding them when deserved.

After the armies mutiny Alexander made his disappointment blatantly obvious, “when I lead you on a new venture you no longer follow me with your old spirit. ,”(Arrian) Not only was Alexander always honest about his own feelings towards his men he also made no secret of the disgust he felt for himself after the murder of Cleitus, taking to his bed for three days with neither food nor drink. This display of emotion on Alexander’s part proves that as a successful leader of an army Alexander valued the qualities of honesty and truth.

The very fact that Arrian “admittedly, found fault with some of the things Alexander did” indicates the honesty he too maintained, and proves that his appraisal of Alexander’s leadership is an honest reflection of his wish “to tell the truth as I saw it”. A simple comparison of Alexander’s leadership skills to those of all the other famous leaders of the world, both classical and modern, is enough to justify Arrian’s appraisal and proves undoubtedly that “never in the world was there another one like him”(Arrian) and that Alexander, in the words of his very own men truly was “Alexandros Aniketos” – invincible Alexander.

Leaders who now in the modern world are respected and regarded as exceptional military leaders in their own right, such as Napoleon and Caesar viewed Alexander as the bench mark in terms leadership success. So much so in fact, that Caesar at the age of thirty three exclaimed in tears do you think I have not cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?


* “The Campaigns of Alexander”, Arrian, Penguin Classics.

* “Plutarch Alexander”, J.R Hamilton a commentary, Oxford University Press.

* “The Generalship of Alexander” A.R Burn, 2nd Edtion Macmillan 1962.

* “Cleitarchus and Diodorus’ Account of Alexander”, E.N Borza, !963.

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