Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Arrian: Book Two—leadership and legend

Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, Jean-Simon Berthélemy
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In addition to his brilliance at military tactics and strategy, Alexander proves to be an adept leader of his men. At the same time he takes care to cultivate his reputation, both for current impact and for future generations. All quotes are from The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch.

So far in the history Alexander takes great care of his men, inspiring their loyalty toward him. In Book One I noted he allowed leave for the recently-married soldiers to winter in Macedonia instead of staying in Asia. After the battle at the Granicus River he visited injured men, letting them inflate their exploits and gallantry, while making sure to honor those that died in battle. We see the same behavior in Book Two, especially after the battle at Issus. Alexander visits the wounded while providing splendid funerals to the fallen soldiers (2.12.1-2). At Soloi he held parades as well as athletic and artistic games which would have helped morale (2.5.8).

Alexander delivers a stirring speech before the battle at Issus, causing his troops to demand he lead them into battle immediately (2.7.3-9). Arrian makes an odd comment though, saying that Alexander spoke as any brave leader would in the circumstance—it may have been meant as a compliment but it seems to diminish the speech a little. Alexander’s speech hit many of the same points as seen in Herodotus and Thucydides. The Herodotean points I found interesting, repeating the stereotype of Persian luxury and softness as well as the concept of battle between free men and slaves. Alexander also invoked Xenophon’s Anabasis as a pale illustration of what his men had and could accomplish. Alexander actions and speeches produce troops that would, as coaches would say, run through a wall for you. Alexander augments this speech by exhorting men by name and mentioning their accomplishments as he rides along the battle lines (2.10.2).

The cultivation of his reputation and that of his troops shows at least one benefit during the battle at Issus. “The action there was fierce, as the Greeks [mercenaries fighting for Darius] tried to drive the Macedonians back to the river and to recover the victory for their own men who were fleeing, while the Macedonians sought not to fall short of Alexander’s already conspicuous success, and to preserve the good name of the phalanx, which at the time was spoken of far and wide as invincible.” (2.10.6) Add to this Alexander’s conspicuous bravery (and foolhardiness) in battles (Granicus, Issus, Tyre, Gaza) and you have a leader whose men will do their best to preserve such a reputation. Recent leadership books on Alexander the Great sell steadily for a reason.

But Alexander seems to be deliberately cultivating more than just his leadership status. His self-promotion aims to create a larger-than-life figure. According to Arrian he showed the desire for such a goal early in his campaign, when he asked the Celts what they feared most and was disappointed the answer was not him (1.4.6-8). After allowing the slaughter of much of Thebes, razing most of the city and enslaving the survivors what does Alexander do (according to legend)? Save the house of the poet Pindar and spare his descendants (1.9.10). Since this became legend instead of the mass slaughter, it looks like Alexander knew what would play to people.

Another legend was Alexander’s undoing of the Gordion knot (usually seen spelled as Gordian). More interesting to me, though, was the motives Arrian ascribes to Alexander in undoing it: “Alexander did not know how to undo the knot, yet he was unwilling to let it remain intact, lest this create public unrest.” (2.3.7) Looking beyond how Arrian or one of his sources knew Alexander’s motives is the desire to appear invincible or larger-than-life, a throwback to the age when legends were made. Obviously he succeeded, with such anecdotes as his reaction to an accusation of treachery from Philip of Acarnania. His ability to laugh at death, whether through defying such warnings or joining his soldiers in opening a breech in a city wall, was guaranteed to solidify such a reputation. If he succeeded, that is. Ever the gentlemen, in appropriate circumstances, Alexander’s behavior toward the captured members of Darius’ family would add to his reputation’s luster. Also, Alexander (so far) never fails to honor the gods after his victories, making clear he viewed himself as subject to the forces of divinity.

A final quote, one that exemplifies Alexander’s philosophy on building his reputation and legend as he approaches the city of Gaza.

When Alexander first approached the city, he made camp where the wall appeared particularly vulnerable, and ordered that siege engines be put together. The engineers, however, argues that owing to the height of the mound it would be impracticable to attempt to capture the city by force. But in Alexander’s view, the harder the conquest, the more it should be attempted; the exploit would greatly astound his enemies by its unexpectedness, whereas a failure to capture the city, if reported to the Greeks and to Darius, would disgrace him. (2.26.2-3)

Alexander the Great Cutting the Gordian Knot, Giovanni Paolo Panini
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