Thursday, April 28, 2011

Arrian: Book One—a study in contrasts, part two

Alexander’s shrewdness when choosing the appropriate action to advance short- and long-term goals lies in his ability to take differing positions when necessary. This post looks at a few of his different approaches to battles in Book One of The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch (source for all quotes).

Alexander could be headstrong when he felt a battle was called for. Upon arriving at the Granicus River soon after crossing into Asia, the Macedonians see the Persian army prepared to meet them on the other side of the river. Parmenion suggests to Alexander that the Macedonians should camp on their own side of the river and cross early in the morning since the river had deep spots, the troops would be bunched up while trying to cross, and the banks on the opposite side were steep. “Thus our first stumble would harm our present standing and might even spoil the outcome of the larger war” noted Parmenion. 1.13.5)

Alexander’s answer and his action in the battle at the Granicus River would provide a foundation for any perception that he spoiled for a fight, something he notes in his reply:
But Alexander replied, “I know all that Parmenion, But I would be ashamed, after having easily crossed the Hellespont, if this little stream:--such was the phrase he used to disparage the Granicus—“keeps us from crossing as we are. I would consider it unworthy of the Macedonians’ renown and of my quickness to accept risks. And I think the Persians would take courage and think themselves a match for the Macedonians in battle, seeing that up to now their fears have not been confirmed by what they have experienced.”

Alexander’s reckless behavior in battle, constantly putting himself in the forefront and exposing himself to danger, would be enough to cement his reputation of accepting risks. But that wasn’t always the case in the army’s march. Alexander, at least in Book One, picks and chooses his battles where he feels necessary. At Thebes and Halicarnassus he pauses during the attack to give the cities a chance to respond to overtures for negotiation. Reminiscent of Alcibiades in Thucydides, Alexander welcomes any opportunity to take a city by sedition. Alexander demonstrated an outlook that preserved his troops several times, avoiding battles where a fight was not necessary (such as the Triballoi and Thracians who escaped to the island in the Danube). Any city that reneged on its surrender or agreement of cooperation, like Aspendos, would find a harsh fate with Alexander.

The role of aggressive commander and hesitant assistant changes at Miletus, where Parmenion councils immediate attack while Alexander looks for other ways to succeed.

Nevertheless, Parmenion advised Alexander to fight at sea. Expecting for a variety of reasons that the Greeks would prevail with their fleet, he had been particularly impressed by an omen: an eagle had been seen on the shore near the sterns of Alexander’s ships. It was Parmenion’s view that if they were victorious, it would be of great advantage to their enterprise as a whole, whereas a defeat would not much matter, since the Persians already had the upper hand at sea. He asserted that he himself was ready to embark with the fleet and run the risk. But Alexander declared that Parmenion was mistaken in his judgment and that his interpretation of the omen was improbable. It would not make sense, he said, with so few ships, to fight at sea against a much larger fleet, and to engage the well-trained navies of the Cyprians and Phoenicians when their own was untrained. Furthermore, he had no wish to surrender to the barbarians the fate of his experienced and daring Macedonians on an element so uncertain. A naval defeat would considerably harm their early renown in the war, particularly because the Greeks, elated by the news of a naval defeat, would revolt. Taking these points into account, Alexander argued that this was not the proper time to engage the enemy at sea. Besides, he said, he interpreted the omen differently: the eagle was indeed a favorable omen, but because it was seen on the ground, he rather thought it meant that he would prevail over the Persian fleet from the land.

Note the importance of “renown in the war”. This has already played an important role in keeping the Greeks in line at home. But before Arrian's history is taken at face value (yes, I know, a little late at this point), let's take a look at Arrian's direct comments to the reader...

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